NFL has a chance to show leniency on marijuana before the political movement does it first

Pointing out the NFL hypocrisy on marijuana use is hardly new. The league has caught flak for years for pushing addictive and harmful painkillers on players while banning them from using weed for medical or recreational purposes.

Up until the last seven years or so, this was at least a tenable position, as popular opinion and laws nationwide aligned with the established protocol. After all, if weed is both illegal and not viewed favorably by the majority of Americans, what risk is there to a pro sports league being against it?

But the last decade has seen a rapid shift in the legality and the mainstreaming of marijuana. A decade ago, there were no states with legalized recreational marijuana. Now there are 10. In 2009, a majority of Americans did not yet support legalizing weed. Now more than 60 percent do.

Weed has made its way so sufficiently into the mainstream that celebrities, including former NFL players like Calvin Johnson, are setting up roots in the burgeoning industry. It strikes fans as more and more ludicrous that the league continues to test for — and punish players who use — marijuana.

About a year ago, tight end Martellus Bennett, who has recently said he wants to unretire and join the Patriots with his brother Michael, estimated that 89 percent of players in the league use it, often just to deal with the grueling pain of the sport.

“There are times of the year where your body just hurts so bad,” Bennett said in a podcast interview. “You don’t want to be popping pills all the time. There are anti-inflammatory drugs you take so long that they start to eat at your liver, kidneys and things like that. A human made that. God made weed.”

Former Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving was suspended indefinitely on March 1 for repeated violations of the league drug policy. That marks the third straight season Irving has been suspended.
Rather than trying to appeal to the league or grovel for forgiveness, Irving took to Instagram Live to announce he quit football while smoking weed and explaining why he finds it a more preferable way to manage pain than with opiates, which he said he’s seen wreak havoc on others.

Beyond Irving, there are plenty of players, including a handful of stars, who have missed significant playing time solely because of suspensions stemming from testing positive for marijuana. If nothing else, this harms the on-field product for an infraction that seems justified in the eyes of most fans. There are enough serious injuries that sideline players. Football doesn’t need help removing some of its more exciting contributors, so why should the NFL seek to make it harder for players to be on the field?

In some ways, the debate over the NFL cracking down on weed echoes in what Colin Kaepernick was drawing attention to in his protests. Marijuana enforcement has always been more strict for people of color than for whites. Prosecuting weed offenses has long been viewed as a means for authorities to keep minorities imprisoned. This is why progressives insist that any broad legalization of marijuana must be attended with an expungement of convictions for marijuana possession.

That the NFL continues testing for marijuana, when it’s legally available in large swaths of the country and has demonstrated pain management benefits, comes off as a method of unnecessary control.

What happens when the NFL doesn’t have the cover of the law? Every candidate so far in the 2020 Democratic primary has voiced support for legalization. Even if the Democrats don’t recapture the White House, polling has found a majority of Republicans also support legalization, the policies of the now former attorney general Jeff Sessions notwithstanding. If President Donald Trump is re-elected, descheduling marijuana could be one of the few ways he could garner positive coverage and not alienate his own base.

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By: Mike Tunison


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