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Cannathletes: How Professional Athletes are Changing the Cannabis Narrative

The culture around Cannabis in professional sports is finally beginning to change as pot policies are relaxed.

As commentators are fond of saying, athletes are the new rock stars. Players from the four major American sports (well, three of them anyway) increasingly become major celebrities with massive social media followings, recognizable brands, and, whether you realize it or not, a great deal of cultural influence.   

Cannabis has long played a role in sports. Pitcher Spaceman Bill Lee was a loud and proud pothead in the ‘70s and old-school NBA centers Robert Parish and Bill Walton were certainly known to partake. But as it’s become increasingly socially acceptable to consume, athletes have played a major role in bringing marijuana into the mainstream.

Likewise, the culture around Cannabis in professional sports is finally beginning to change as pot policies are relaxed. Of course, this shift coincides with changes in the legal landscape. There are 123 teams across the four major American sports (football, basketball, baseball and hockey) and 101 of them play in a state that has legalized recreational and/or medical marijuana (that’s over 80 percent).

Still, for a long time, the NFL was content to keep its pot policy in the dark ages, subjecting players to random tests and punishing them with suspensions.

Ricky Williams is the probably the best-known example of an athlete embracing Cannabis –– and paying the price. The former running back used marijuana to cope with social anxiety disorder and to recover from workouts. But after failing a drug test, Williams found it difficult to navigate the NFL’s draconian pot policy. Testing became more frequent, so frequent that Williams says he was drug tested at least 500 times during his football career. He was also suspended for an entire season. Williams opted to retire rather than be governed by the league’s pot rules. He got away from football, traveled to India, studied Ayurveda and grew as a person before returning to football.

Williams ultimately had to toe the line in the NFL, but he never let the league’s ridiculous take on Cannabis change him. In fact, it’s pretty clear he changed the culture of the NFL, as players view marijuana in a different light thanks to Ricky. 

Now, it’s commonplace for players to use Cannabis to recover from the wear and tear of the sport. Estimates indicate that anywhere between 50 and 89 percent of the league partakes. In fact, many players advocate for using marijuana in place of harmful opioids when dealing with pain. Ricky definitely has something to do with that. He was a pioneer. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, pioneers usually end up with arrows in their backs.

After years of forcing pot prohibition on players, the NFL has at last changed course: The new collective bargaining agreement does away with suspensions for pot use, limits the testing window to the first two weeks of training camp and significantly raises the threshold for a positive test. 

Pot is also prevalent in the NBA. Despite estimates that as much as 85 percent of the league consumes Cannabis, the Association had banned pot since 1983. Change finally came this summer when the NBA and the players union agreed on a new drug policy prior to resuming play in Orlando following the coronavirus outbreak. Previously, players were randomly tested four times over the season and positive pot tests were met with escalating punishments, including suspensions. Under the new rules, players are screened for PEDs but not recreational drugs.

Additionally, the NHL and more recently MLB don’t ban Cannabis and treat its use as a health issue. MLB even did away with suspensions for minor leaguers who test positive.

Competitors in extreme sports and e-sports have largely embraced Cannabis. Yet as e-sports have grown to rival some traditional sports in viewership and ad dollars, drug testing is becoming more commonplace. Still, Cannabis and gaming are undeniably linked and testing in these leagues is certainly on the liberal side. But if you prefer to watch stoned gaming, remember, some e-sports leagues make marijuana mandatory.

About Mike Gianakos

Mike is the former editor-in-chief of High Times magazine, where he also spearheaded video and podcasting for the company. He has produced a number of Cannabis-related podcasts, including Free Weed, and is currently the producer and co-host of Grow Bud Yourself. Mike is the senior editor for Northeast Leaf magazine. Email story ideas to mikeg@leafmagazines.com

This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue of All Magazines.

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