As the 2016 NFL season gets underway, marijuana use by players has become one of the most contentious issues, particularly in Pittsburgh with the suspensions of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. However, the questions surrounding the topic are nothing new.
The first NFL player suspensions for marijuana use took place during the 1988 season. There were admissions of pot use and other drug-related suspensions prior, but the early-’80s substance suspensions were for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and cocaine. Weed came later.
Among the first was Greg Townsend, defensive end for the then-Los Angeles Raiders, who was caught with “a small amount of marijuana” and received a four-game suspension.
“Just like people go in their refrigerator and grab a beer, mix a cocktail, I went and rolled a joint after practice,” Townsend told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “That’s what I did to unwind.”
That’s about as candid a response as we’ve heard from an NFL player on the subject, and that was 28 years ago. Both the drug and the game have undergone considerable cultural shifts since, though in opposite directions.
Marijuana is now fully legal in four states and Washington, D.C.; it’s legal medicinally in 36 others, including Pennsylvania, and the movement doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The NFL, on the other hand, has endured some less-than-stellar attention in the past decade regarding its responses to issues of domestic violence, concussions and PEDs.
According to the online sports-statistics hub Spotrac, there are 35 players facing suspensions or fines for the 2016 season; 15 of these cases involve substance abuse and eight for PEDs. The rest involve on-field behavior like roughing passers and deflating footballs.
Ricky Williams, the retired New Orleans running back known for his prolific on-field performance and prolific off-field smoking, discussed marijuana in the NFL on HBO’s Any Given Wednesday last week. When asked by host Bill Simmons if he’d be a Hall-of-Famer if weed had been legal during his career, Williams responded unequivocally: “For sure, no doubt about it,” adding “the negative media coverage I got really tarnished my image.”
Selling the image of football players as wholesome, hard-working role models seems to be the NFL’s priority. Compare Townsend’s response with the average “sorry-I-got-high” press conference for today’s players, and it’s hard to ignore that the NFL is at least slightly at odds with the direction of the country at whole.
While the league insists that its policy is meant to reflect marijuana’s status as a controlled substance, it sure feels like a branding issue.
Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), believes an ideal marijuana policy in the NFL would allow players to make their own decisions about pot as long as they comply with their state’s cannabis laws. However, he does acknowledge that the employee/employer contracts enable the league to reprimand behavior as it sees fit. Still, he believes changes to the NFL policy are possible.
“They’re going to have to confront it,” says Nightingale.