Multiple polls have found that an overwhelming number of National Basketball Association (NBA) fans support ending cannabis prohibition in the NBA. But unfortunately, not all fans agree with that policy change. Some fans still oppose cannabis reform in the league, citing various reasons as to why they feel the way that they do.
One reason that some NBA fans offer up as justification for their opposition to cannabis reform in the league is that ‘the NBA’s cannabis policy is not too harsh’ in their opinion. The Uncle Cliffy team respectfully disagrees. Players that have been recently suspended for cannabis use such as Monta Ellis, Reggie Bullock, Nerlens Noel, and Thabo Sefolosha would likely also disagree.
As the Uncle Cliffy team has pointed out before, when the NBA suspends players for cannabis everyone loses, including the league itself. What drives the NBA’s business model is the games that players compete in. When players are taken out of competition for consuming a plant that is 114 times safer than alcohol, the NBA’s product suffers, in addition to the harm that the suspended players have to endure themselves.
NBA players that are suspended for cannabis use are not just harmed monetarily via the direct lost wages from the games that they were prevented from competing in. The players are also harmed in many other ways that cannabis opponents often try to gloss over:
- Public shaming
- Locked out of future coaching opportunities
- Lost endorsement deals
- Lost future broadcasting opportunities
- Less recognition for accomplishments
- Lower future contracts
The NBA’s current cannabis policy does not include any exceptions for medical cannabis use. As of this blog post, the U.S. Library of Medicine returns 28,501 results for the search term ‘marijuana.’ That is considerably more results than for a search for studies revolving around Tylenol (22,155 studies). Cannabis is medicine. The NBA needs to recognize that fact and have some compassion for its players.
No one is saying that NBA players should be allowed to show up to work under the influence of cannabis. No one is saying that NBA players should be allowed to transport cannabis across state or international borders. No one is saying that NBA players should receive special treatment. What advocates are saying is that the NBA should treat cannabis like it does alcohol and let players consume cannabis responsibly if they choose to do so.
NBA players should be measured by their abilities and moral character, and not measured by the amount of THC metabolites in their system. The NBA is obviously on the wrong side of history with its current cannabis policy. It’s time for that to change. It’s time to free the plant.
Currently, the National Basketball Association (NBA) prohibits all forms of cannabis use by players, even when the player is in a state where cannabis is legal, and even when the use is medical in nature. There are no exceptions.
That policy is extremely out of touch in 2018. As of the posting of this article 9 states have approved measures to legalize cannabis for adult use, in addition to Washington D.C. More than three times as many states have legalized cannabis for medical use (in addition to Washington D.C.). More states are likely to legalize cannabis in the near future, as is the entire country of Canada.
Gallup’s most recent poll found that a record level of Americans now support legalizing cannabis for adult use (64%). A different poll conducted by Quinnipiac University found that 94% of Americans support allowing people to use cannabis for medical purposes. Yet, despite all of that, the NBA still clings to cannabis prohibition.
When the NBA suspends players for using cannabis, they are not only harming the players and their teams, they are also harming the league itself. Ultimately the NBA’s main product is its players. When players are not on the court, the league’s overall product suffers. Fans want to see their team’s players on the court, and the NBA should want to as well.
Sometimes taking a player off the court makes sense, such as when a player is hurt or dealing with a personal matter. Other times taking a player off the court, such as for valid disciplinary reasons, is warranted. However, taking a player off the court simply because they have THC metabolites in their urine is ludicrous.
The NBA has a current threshold of just 15 ng/mL. If a player crosses that threshold they are penalized, which was the case recently with Dallas Mavericks center Nerlens Noel and Utah Jazz forward Thabo Sefolosha. Both players were suspended for 5 games after violating the league’s anti-cannabis policy.
To put the 15 ng/mL threshold into perspective, one study found that someone could fail a drug test for just simply being around other people that were consuming cannabis. The study found that one participant tested at over 50 ng/mL and several participants tested at over 20 ng/mL due to secondhand cannabis smoke exposure.
NBA players could theoretically be in violation of the league’s policy when they haven’t even personally consumed cannabis, especially considering that cannabis can stay in a person’s system for as long as 100 days. Olympic athletes are held to a standard that is ten times more lenient.
The Uncle Cliffy team does not know the circumstances with these players, but the fact that it’s even a possibility that they could have been suspended due to secondhand cannabis smoke exposure highlights how ridiculous the NBA’s current cannabis policy is. NBA cannabis policies should be based on science and compassion, and not on outdated political views.
NBA league officials need to get on the right side of history, and NBA players need to refuse to settle for anything less. The league’s current cannabis policy is harmful to players, to their families who also have to deal with stigma, to their teams, and to the league itself. It’s so strict that it could result in players being suspended when they have not even consumed cannabis.
Cannabis is 114 times safer than alcohol, which is a substance that is widely embraced by the NBA. If the NBA can embrace alcohol, then players should be able to consume a plant that is exponentially safer. To say otherwise defies logical reasoning. The NBA needs to do what is right and free the plant!
Clifford ‘Uncle Cliffy’ Robinson has been helping lead an effort to reform the harmful, outdated cannabis policy of the National Basketball League (NBA). Current NBA cannabis policy is such that there are no exceptions for cannabis use by NBA players, even when the cannabis use is legal in the state where the consumption takes place, and even when the use is for medical purposes.
The NBA subjects its players to several random cannabis tests throughout the season and has the strictest cannabis testing limit out of the major sports leagues. The NBA’s 15 ng/mL THC metabolite threshold is ten times as strict as what Olympic athletes are held to. Many NBA players have been suspended for cannabis use over the years, including Clifford Robinson (multiple times).
Alcohol use by players is not prohibited by the NBA, despite alcohol being 114 times more harmful than cannabis. The NBA also pushes opioids and other pharmaceutical drugs on its players, despite cannabis being safer a safer, effective alternative. The blatant hypocrisy on the part of the NBA is unacceptable, and a growing number of current and retired players have joined Clifford Robinson in demanding a change.
Cannabis reform in the NBA can come via one of two routes. The first is if NBA leadership decides to end cannabis prohibition, but that does not appear to be likely for whatever reason. The much more likely route is via collective bargaining negotiations between players and owners. In order for that to happen though, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) will have to take the lead on the issue during negotiations.
The sports community gained insight this week into whether or not cannabis reform is on the NBPA’s radar when the executive director of the NBPA, Michele Roberts, participated in an interview with SB Nation and discussed medical cannabis reform in the league. Below is what Michele Roberts had to say, per the interview:
Everyone claims to have done their own independent study. What we want to do is agree on some experts that can sit down and talk to us. My own view is that there are substantial signs that support its efficacy and the value that it has for us, especially pain management. We’re in talks with the league to see where we can go with it.
The obvious future is that marijuana will be decriminalized probably throughout the country in short order. Don’t forget our current attorney general [Jeff Sessions], who has taken a very different approach to his tolerance for this. That makes it a little more difficult.
It is a banned substance in our league right now. If we do go down that road, we have to protect our players from — my words — a crazed attorney general who says he will prosecute violations of the law involving marijuana and he doesn’t care what individual states say.
In other words, I don’t want my guys being arrested at airports in possession of a cannabinoid by some fed. It’s against the law. So, we’ll see.
There is no medical exemption?
No. It does not exist now. We’re exploring it. I think there is some movement toward accepting it as an appropriate use to address pain. But we’re not there yet.
The interview covers multiple points. The first is one that comes up a lot when cannabis reform is discussed – cannabis studies. The fact of the matter is that cannabis is one of the most studied substances known to man, and the Uncle Cliffy team continues to encourage NBA officials to look at the mountain of cannabis research that already exists which shows that cannabis is safe and effective. The current body of studies dealing with cannabis and pain, reducing opioid use, and traumatic brain injuries are of particular importance.
Secondly, Michele Roberts expresses concerns about United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ anti-cannabis views. Those fears are not well founded, and should not serve as justification for continued cannabis prohibition in the NBA. The federal government going after an individual for simply consuming cannabis, including professional athletes, would be unprecedented.
Possessing cannabis on federal property is one thing, as is trying to fly with cannabis (which no one is proposing that athletes should do). But the odds of the federal government going after a professional athlete simply for being a cannabis consumer is very, very low and likely non-existent as the Uncle Cliffy team has pointed out previously (here, here, here, and here).
Executive director Roberts’ last words of the excerpt above were disappointing to read. ‘We’re not there yet’ is not good enough. NBA players have to deal with all types of conditions and ailments, and cannabis has been proven to help people that suffer from those conditions and ailments.
Cannabis is safer than other substances that the NBA embraces. Also, cannabis laws have been reformed in one form or another in every state and country that NBA teams are located. Michele Roberts recently attended a cannabis company launch party, so hopefully she is warming up to the idea of cannabis reform in the NBA at a rapid pace. It’s beyond time that the NBA, and the NBPA, got on the ride side of history and put the health and wellness of NBA players above outdated political views. Free the plant!
More background on Uncle Cliffy’s coverage of cannabis and the NBA:
Polling Shows That The NBA’s Fanbase Supports Cannabis Reform
Ending Cannabis Prohibition In The NBA Shouldn’t Be So Difficult
Ex-NBA Commissioner Supports Removing Cannabis From List Of Banned Substances
Report: Adam Silver Says NBA Is Open To Medical Cannabis Reform
California voters legalized cannabis during the 2016 election. The possession and cultivation provisions of the successful initiative went into effect the day after the election. However, the industry portion of the initiative did not get implemented until the first day of 2018.
Adult-use cannabis sales started in California on January 1, 2018, and by all accounts, the launch was a success. California has now proven that a regulated system for adult-use sales can be implemented without any issues, just as Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Nevada have already done.
Many people have weighed in on the start of adult-use sales in California, including current NBA coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors. When asked about the recent launch in California, Kerr had the following to say per The Mercury News:
“I’m a proponent of it,” Kerr said after Tuesday’s practice.
“I do feel strongly that [marijuana] is a much better option than some of the prescription drugs and I know that it’s helping a lot of people, which is great.”
This is not the first time that Steve Kerr has expressed support for cannabis. Kerr has admitted to having used cannabis after back surgery to help deal with the pain associated with the surgery, and last October stated that he thinks that the NBA will eventually end cannabis prohibition. On both occasions coach Kerr expressed support for cannabis reform in professional sports.
With so many professional sports teams being located in California and other legal states, and the expressed public support from a growing number of professional sports community members such as Steve Kerr, the Uncle Cliffy team is hopeful that pro sports leagues will listen and free the plant!
image via Flickr
Last year was a big year for the sports cannabis movement. An ever-increasing number of professional athletes, both current and retired, are joining the movement in an effort to free the plant in professional sports leagues as well as in society. What will 2018 bring? Will it be an even bigger year for the sports cannabis movement compared to 2017?
On the first day of 2018, the Uncle Cliffy team feels that it was important to look forward to the upcoming year. It’s anyone’s guess as to what pro sports leagues’ leadership will do, or not do when it comes to cannabis policy. The Uncle Cliffy team is hopeful that leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) will get on the right side of history and let their players make the safer choice if they want to.
When professional sports leagues choose to prohibit cannabis use by their players, the leagues are establishing cannabis policies based on political views and not science. Because of that, any political victories experienced in society have an impact on the effort to end cannabis prohibition in professional sports. 2018 is an election year and its already shaping up to be very promising for cannabis reform.
As of right now, there are 8 states that have legalized cannabis for adult use and 29 states that have legalized cannabis for medical use. Washington D.C. has also legalized cannabis for both medical and adult use. Multiple states are expected to vote on medical cannabis initiatives in 2018, as well as at least one state voting on an adult-use legalization initiative.
Oklahoma, Missouri, and Utah are all expected to vote on medical cannabis initiatives in 2018. Oklahoma’s initiative has already made the ballot, and advocates are waiting on Oklahoma’s Governor to decide if the vote on the initiative will take place during the primary election (June) or the general election (November).
Efforts in Missouri and Utah are currently gathering signatures in the hopes of placing medical cannabis on the ballot in November. All three states are home to professional sports teams.
Michigan activists turned in hundreds of thousands of signatures for an adult-use initiative in an attempt to make the November ballot. The initiative will be put in front of voters on Election Day if enough of the signatures are determined to be valid. Advocates in Ohio recently announced that they will also be pushing to get an adult-use initiative on the ballot in November. Michigan and Ohio are both home to several professional sports teams.
Every state that has legalized cannabis for adult use so far has done so via the citizen initiative process. However, multiple states are in the running in 2018 to be the first state to legalize cannabis for adult use via legislative action. Vermont and New Jersey both seem to be the most likely to legalize cannabis in 2018 via legislative action.
Vermont and New Jersey are not the official home of an NBA, NFL, or MLB team, but the New York Giants and New York Jets both play their home games in Metlife Stadium which are located in New Jersey. If either or both states legalize cannabis for adult use, it will be very significant and will help add to the sports cannabis movement’s momentum.
Efforts in other states are also underway, and the Uncle Cliffy team is rooting for all of them. Every state that reforms its cannabis laws increases the chances that professional sports leagues will do the same. Players want reform, fans want reform, and even members of team’s leadership and the sports media community want reform. 2018 will hopefully be the year that the sports cannabis movement reaches critical mass and puts enough pressure on the leagues that they free the plant!
2017 was a very big year for the sports cannabis movement. Below are the top 10 sports cannabis stories from this year (in no particular order).
1. Retired professional athletes continue to unite to push for cannabis reform
When retired professional athletes speak out in support of cannabis reform in professional sports they risk becoming victims of the stigma associated with cannabis. Retired athletes risk losing endorsement deals, league appearances, broadcasting opportunities, coaching opportunities, and more when they come out in support of freeing the plant.
Despite those risks, a growing number of retired professional athletes are coming out publicly in support of cannabis reform. Retired National Basketball Association (NBA) players such as Clifford ‘Uncle Cliffy’ Robinson, John Salley, and Al Harrington have been very vocal in 2017 in calling for the NBA to get on the rights side of history. Retired National Football League (NFL) veterans like Eugene Monroe, Ricky Williams, Kyle Turley, Marvin Washington, Boo Williams, Nate Jackson, and Eben Britton have been pushing all year for reform in the NFL.
Retired athletes in other leagues like Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have stepped up big time in 2017 in the name of reform cannabis policies in professional sports. Organizations such as Athletes for Care have helped athletes from all professional sports leagues unite together to amplify their voices in calling for cannabis reform in professional sports.
2. Current athletes call for reform in the NBA and NFL
It takes a lot of courage to call for cannabis reform while still being an active player in a professional sports league. Doing so can result in players being typecast as ‘potheads’ which comes with a significant amount of unfair stigma. Two active players made headlines in 2017 in the NFL and NBA by expressing support for reform.
The first was Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves who expressed support for medical cannabis reform in the NBA. The second was Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan who not only called for cannabis reform in the NFL, but also wore custom cleats as part of the NFL’s #MyCauseMyCleats campaign. Morgan’s cleats supported the pro-cannabis non-profit Realm of Caring.
3. World Anti-Doping Agency announces that UFC fighters and other athletes will not be penalized for using CBD
The World Anti-Doping Agency announced in 2017 that starting next year CBD will no longer be listed as a banned substance, which means that UFC fighters and other athletes that are held to World Anti-Doping Agency’s testing standards can use CBD. CBD has been found to help treat ailments and conditions that many professional athletes suffer from.
In addition to allowing athletes to benefit from the wellness properties of CBD, the decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency is significant because it demonstrates that the World Anti-Doping Agency does not consider CBD to be a performance-enhancing drug.
CBD does provide wellness benefits to athletes but does not enhance athletic performance to such an extent that it warrants being categorized as a performance-enhancing drug. That’s a big deal because many have feared that CBD prohibition in professional sports would continue under the justification that CBD is performance enhancing.
4. Ex-NBA Commissioner David Stern publicly endorses cannabis reform in the NBA
While David Stern was the NBA’s commissioner he suspended players for cannabis use, including multiple suspensions handed down to Clifford Robinson. In an interview earlier this year, conducted by retired NBA player Al Harrington, Stern indicated that he has changed his mind, stating “I’m now at the point where, personally, I think [marijuana] probably should be removed from the ban list. I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”
The change of heart was certainly welcomed by cannabis advocates and made headlines around the world, but the message did not come with an apology to the NBA players that were victims of David Stern’s NBA prohibition policy. The Uncle Cliffy team is hopeful that a sincere apology will come soon.
5. Dallas Cowboys leadership comes out in support of cannabis reform in the NFL
When it comes to NFL owners, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has always stood out in the crowd due to being so outspoken. When Jerry Jones talks, the sports world listens, including NFL league officials. So it was a very big deal when Jones spoke out in 2017 in support of cannabis reform in the NFL.
Jerry Jones was joined by Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones, who also expressed support for cannabis reform in the league. NFL owners, league officials, and fans should all want players on the field competing, and not dressed in street clothes on the sidelines due to a cannabis suspension. That’s a point that Jerry Jones hammered home in 2017, and hopefully will continue to express early and often in 2018.
6. Polling shows that it is beyond time for professional sports leagues to end cannabis prohibition
2017 saw a number of polls released which demonstrated a significant amount of support for cannabis reform. 68% of poll participants in one poll expressed that if their favorite sports athlete consumed cannabis that it ‘makes no difference’ to the level of respect that they would have for the athlete. An additional 3% stated that they would have more respect.
Another poll found that an astounding 76.5% of sports media members polled expressed that cannabis prohibition should end in professional sports. A separate poll found that 54% of the public believes that professional athletes should not be prohibited from using cannabis if they live in a state where it is legal. Currently 8 states in America have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 29 states have legalized cannabis for medical use.
7. United States Congressman urges the NBA and NFL to end cannabis prohibition
United States Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has been a champion of cannabis reform in politics for a long time. He spearheaded the effort in Oregon’s Legislature in the early 1970’s to make Oregon the first state to decriminalize cannabis. Blumenauer has either introduced, co-sponsored, and/or endorsed every cannabis reform bill in Congress since he became a Congressman in 1996.
This year Congressman Blumenauer was interviewed by TMZ, and during the interview, Earl Blumenauer stated (in regards to cannabis in professional sports), “It’s much less damaging than the opioids, the painkillers, the shots, the pills … and it’s time professional sports stops punishing them but works with them.” Blumenauer pointed out that 2/3rds of Americans have legal access to medical cannabis and that to ban NBA and NFL players from using medical cannabis is basically treating them like “second-class citizens.”
8. The PGA increases its cannabis drug-testing threshold
Some sports leagues default to the World Anti-Doping Agency standard for cannabis metabolite drug testing thresholds, while other professional sports leagues set their own standards. The MLB has a THC metabolite threshold of 50 ng/mL, the NFL has a threshold of 35 ng/mL, and the NBA has a threshold of just 15 ng/mL.
The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) increased its THC metabolite threshold ten fold in 2017, raising the limit from 15 ng/mL to 150 ng/mL. To put things into perspective, Olympic athletes are also held to the standard of 150 ng/mL. The increase in the PGA’s testing threshold is not as good as removing the prohibition on cannabis use altogether, but it’s a welcomed step in the right direction.
9. NBA commissioner Adam Silver states that he is ‘open’ to medical cannabis reform in the NBA
In a report from earlier this year, current NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed an openness to medical cannabis reform in the NBA. Silver stated, “My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management. And it’s something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it.”
Commissioner Silver made the comments to members of the media while visiting Israel as part of the Basketball Without Borders program. Adam Silver has stated a number of times in the past that the NBA prohibition policy would remain in effect, but his comments while he was abroad are encouraging and hopefully will lead to constructive conversations about cannabis reform in the NBA in 2018.
10. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell makes inaccurate comments about cannabis to justify league prohibition
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a polarizing figure in the sports world. In the sports cannabis world specifically, he is absolutely on the wrong side of history. In April 2017 Goodell claimed that cannabis has no medical benefits, and went even further to say that cannabis use is harmful to NFL players. He also suggested that allowing NFL players to consume cannabis could make the league liable for ‘negative consequences’ that could occur from cannabis use.
Those statements were quickly debunked by the Uncle Cliffy team. Cannabis provides a number of medical benefits, including benefits specifically for NFL players that suffer from pain and brain injuries. Cannabis also has been shown to reduce opioid consumption, which is something that the NFL should absolutely want to embrace. Goodell’s denial of cannabis’ medical benefits while the NFL simultaneously embraces much more harmful substances like alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs is extremely hypocritical.
Professional athletes can violate league cannabis policies in two ways. The first is by failing a drug test. Each major professional sports league in America has its own THC metabolite threshold for drug testing. Major League Baseball (MLB) has a threshold of 50 ng/mL. The National Football League (NFL) has a threshold of 35 ng/mL and the National Basketball Association (NBA) has a threshold of just 15 ng/mL. If players cross that threshold, they will have failed the drug test.
To put those thresholds into perspective, Olympic athletes are held to a standard of 150 ng/mL. Ideally, there would be no threshold at all. The National Hockey League (NHL) does not list cannabis on its list of banned substances, although NHL players could in theory still be punished for cannabis via mandatory entry into the NHL’s substance-abuse program.
The second way that athletes can be found as having violated league cannabis policy is if they are convicted of a cannabis offense while away from their team. This particular violation is extremely problematic, as the Uncle Cliffy team has pointed out before. Federal and state-level cannabis prohibition laws are forms of institutional racism, as available data clearly demonstrates. One of the many examples that prove that point can be found in Buffalo, New York (Clifford Robinson’s hometown). Despite Caucasians consuming cannabis at a higher rate in Buffalo, African Americans are 7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis.
If an African American athlete is seven times more likely to be arrested for cannabis when away from their team, and leagues punish players that are convicted of cannabis offenses, then African American players are therefore seven times more likely to be punished for cannabis by their leagues compared to Caucasian players. That perpetuation of institutional racism is obviously unacceptable, which is why the Uncle Cliffy team highlights the injustice involved on a frequent basis (and will continue to do so!).
Leadership in professional sports leagues, and members of the media, often try to downplay the seriousness of cannabis prohibition in sports by cracking jokes and making cannabis consuming athletes out to be ‘potheads.’ But cannabis prohibition is far from a laughing matter. Professional athletes are punished for cannabis in many ways, some being more obvious than others, but with all forms of punishment being harmful and unjust. Below are ten ways that professional athletes are punished because of sports leagues’ cannabis prohibition policies.
The punishment that professional athletes face that sports fans are most familiar with is a suspension. A player is prohibited from competing when they are found to have consumed cannabis or if they are convicted of a cannabis offense when away from their teams. Suspensions vary from league to league, and it depends on the athlete’s prior history with cannabis policy violations.
Professional sports league officials and team owners should want their players on the field or court, and not to be wearing street clothes when the game starts. That’s especially true when the reason for the suspension is that the player was found to have consumed or possessed a plant that has been found to be 114 times safer than alcohol.
2. Public Shaming
In America, people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. But when it comes to professional athletes and cannabis, the opposite is true. Long before a professional athlete is afforded due process, major media outlets shame them relentlessly. So much so that the stigma carries over to the locker room and players have to deal with shaming and shunning from their fellow teammates.
Even if a league ultimately decides to not take action against an athlete that is involved in a situation that includes cannabis, they are blasted on sports media outlets and mainstream media outlets over and over. Athletes are portrayed as having let down their teams, their coaches, and their families, which is blatant hypocrisy given sports leagues’ embracing of substances that are exponentially more harmful.
3. Locked out of Coaching Opportunites
Anyone who has been paying attention has likely noticed that athletes that have been associated with cannabis have not ended up in coaching positions. This form of punishment is a prime example of how athletes have to deal with the stigma that comes with being associated with cannabis well after their playing days are over. It often doesn’t matter how successful or knowledgeable an athlete is, if they are known for being a cannabis consumer, they are very rarely offered coaching positions in professional sports leagues.
4. No Endorsements
Professional athletes have massive followings and access to enormous platforms that amplify their voices. Because of that, professional athletes are frequently signed up to endorse various products and services. However, if an athlete has been publicly shamed for their cannabis use, it makes companies hesitant to work with them.
For many cannabis consuming athletes, endorsement deals are non-existent, no matter how popular they are in the markets they competed in. For athletes that already have endorsement deals in place, a cannabis offense or association with the cannabis plant can result in those deals being terminated, such as in the case of prolific Olympic champion Michael Phelps.
5. Broadcasting Opportunities Remain Elusive
One position in professional sports that retired athletes commonly fill is that of a broadcaster. Broadcaster positions exist on television and radio and come in many forms. While it’s understandable that not everyone gets a full-time gig in broadcasting after they retire from professional sports, popular players are almost always invited to at least participate in some form of broadcasting, even if it’s just for broadcast appearances.
However, professional athletes that have been branded with the ‘cannabis scarlet letter’ are rarely offered such opportunities, no matter how successful they were as an athlete, or how popular they are among team fanbases. It’s obviously not a coincidence, whether teams, leagues, and networks want to admit it or not.
6. No Recognition for Accomplishments
Many players that are associated with cannabis are pushed out of professional sports before they are able to accumulate noteworthy accomplishments. However, in the rare instances when a player is able to overcome the stigma and achieve despite being associated with cannabis, those achievements are rarely recognized by teams and leagues.
All professional sports teams recognize their best athletes in one way or another, with one of the most common ways being the retirement of a player’s jersey number. But if an elite athlete is associated with cannabis, they are virtually never recognized in such a way. This is true even when the athlete was an all-star, even when they won league honors, and even when they still rank among the top players in statistical categories for the team(s) that they played for.
7. Harmed Health
Cannabis has undeniable wellness benefits. A number of studies and personal experiences have found that to be the case. Anyone who says otherwise has obviously not looked at the growing body of evidence that cannabis is indeed medicine. Studies have also found that cannabis can help athletes reduce their use of harmful opioids and other pharmaceuticals.
Yet, despite cannabis’ obvious medical benefits, leagues like the NFL and NBA do not allow any medical exceptions for cannabis use. Even players like Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, who cannot use opioids because he had part of his intestine surgically removed due to suffering from Crohn’s disease, are punished with enormous suspensions for using cannabis, even though it’s a proven medicine.
Professional athletes can use opioids, other pharmaceuticals, and alcohol and they will not be punished. In fact, leagues embrace those substances and often push them on players while prohibiting cannabis, despite the fact that those substances are exponentially more harmful than cannabis. Obvious such policies and practices are based on political opinions, and not on science and compassion.
8. Robbed of the Chance to Own a Part of History
Athletes should be measured by the content of their character and their skills in competition, and not based on the amount of THC metabolites that they have in their system. If an athlete is too hurt to compete, or their skill level is such that they don’t make a team, so be it. No one should argue to the contrary.
However, if the only reason that an athlete is not allowed to compete is because of cannabis consumption or they were caught with cannabis, that is a huge injustice. By taking players out of competition, players are being robbed of a chance to own a part of history. At the least, they are robbed of the moments and statistics that they would have otherwise accumulated during competition.
But at the worst, a cannabis suspension could cost a player a shot at a championship. It could also cost an athlete their entire career in the case of those that faced a level of stigma so great that they walked away or were forced away from the sport that they loved and dedicated their lives to.
9. Reduced Contracts
Professional athletes that are suspended for cannabis lose money upfront because of how athletes are paid. Professional athletes are paid game checks, and if they do not compete in a game due to a suspension, they are not paid.
But that is not the only way that professional athletes are punished financially. Athletes that are associated with cannabis often see contract offers that are lower than anticipated, or even worse, they are not offered any contract offers at all.
10. League Intimidation
Even if an athlete does not consume cannabis, they can still face a tremendous level of stigma from professional sports leagues if they express support for cannabis reform. A prime example of that would be what happened to Chicago Bears lineman Kyle Long earlier this year.
After having posted a snarky pro-cannabis tweet, Kyle Long was almost immediately hit with a ‘random’ drug test by the NFL. Kyle Long ultimately passed the drug test, but it was clear that the intent of the drug test was to send a chilling effect towards Mr. Long and other players that would speak out against the NFL’s cannabis prohibition policy. No one, professional athletes included, should ever have to deal with that type of intimidation.
Last month former National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner David Stern stated that he now supports cannabis reform in the NBA. Stern’s endorsement of NBA cannabis reform was met with a swift reply from the NBA that it would keep cannabis on its banned substances list. However, Stern’s statements did generate a significant amount of conversation in the NBA community and beyond, with much of the conversation being positive from a cannabis reform standpoint.
A number of retired players have joined 18 year veteran Clifford Robinson in coming out in support of cannabis reform in the NBA. Today an active player, Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, expressed support for medical cannabis reform in the NBA. Towns’ pro-cannabis comments came during an interview with ESPN, excerpts of which can be found below (interview questions are in bold):
If you’re commissioner Adam Silver and could make one change to the rules in the NBA, what would it be?
I agree with David Stern with marijuana. You don’t have to actually make it “Mary J” [or] “Half Baked.” You don’t have to do it like that, but you could use the [chemical] properties in it to make a lot of people better. That’s something that Adam Silver has to do. That’s out of my control, but maybe legalizing marijuana. Not fully legal where people are chimneys but using [marijuana] as a beneficial factor as an athlete, as a person living daily. I think a lot of times fans forget that sometimes there may be some things that are banned that may not be the greatest for playing basketball, but for everyday living off the court, sometimes those things that are legal could help us.
And again, you’re coming at this as a guy who has never smoked.
No, I’ve never smoked or drank a day in my life. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. All my friends don’t drink or smoke. I’ve always believed the people you keep around you [represent] who you’ll become. I have no animosity or ill will or any belittlement to anyone who smokes or drinks. Everyone has their own hobbies and what they like to do and who they are. So I just personally have never done anything like that. I was just raised a little different like that. I never had anyone [around me] who wanted to do it … I’m a strong believer, I have a strong mind. So if I don’t want to do it no one can peer pressure me into doing it.
It takes a lot of courage to speak out about cannabis reform when a player is active due to the unfair stigma they will face. What Karl-Anthony Towns did this week is inspiring, and will hopefully encourage other active NBA players to come out in support of cannabis reform. Hopefully it also encourages athletes in other sports to do the same. Towns is joined by at least one other active NBA player in supporting medical cannabis reform in the league – Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin.
In an interview in 2014 Blake Griffin had the following to say about medical cannabis reform in the NBA (interview question in bold):
The NFL might let players use medical marijuana to treat pain. If you had a vote, would the NBA do the same?
It doesn’t really affect me, but so many guys would probably benefit from it and not take as many painkillers, which have worse long-term effects. So I would vote yes. I just think it makes sense.
As always, the Uncle Cliffy team feels the need to point out that while medical cannabis reform is a great thing, a full end to cannabis prohibition in professional sports is even better. A medical-only approach to cannabis in professional sports leaves open the door for selective enforcement, and does not address the issue of professional sports leagues perpetuating institutional racism via suspending players for cannabis arrests while they are away from their team. 8 states and Washington D.C. now allow cannabis for adult use (with more on the way), and considering how many professional sports teams are located in those states, the NBA and other leagues need to get with the times and get on the right side of history. Free the plant!
Back in March of this year Bleacher Report posted an article which described fears among National Football League (NFL) players that the Trump administration would crackdown on players that consume cannabis. The fears arose due to anti-cannabis comments made by United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and then White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Mr. Spicer hinted at ‘greater enforcement’ of federal cannabis laws, and Jeff Sessions stated the following at the time, per Politico:
“Most of you probably know I don’t think America is going to be a better place when more people of all ages and particularly young people start smoking pot,” Sessions said during an exchange with reporters at the Justice Department. “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago.”
“We’re seeing real violence around that,” Sessions said. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”
“I’m definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana,” he said. “States they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
The Uncle Cliffy team pointed out at the time that while it’s possible that the federal government could target a pro athlete for personal cannabis use, such a move would be unprecedented, and was highly unlikely. We felt that it was much more likely that the cannabis comments and news coming out of the White House earlier this year were more rhetoric than anything. By making such comments the Trump administration, and likely sports league officials, knew that it will create a chilling effect that would possibly slow down reform efforts, or convince advocates to abandon their efforts altogether.
Jeff Sessions’ staunch opposition to cannabis reform was also cited by the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) in its response to the newly found support for cannabis reform by former head of the NBA David Stern last month. Per NBA.com:
“I think its fair to say we have to be mindful that given the current administration and Sessions’ comments on his view, that it’s a gateway drug, it wouldn’t be prudent for any changes to be made until we know what the current DOJ has to say about this.” – Michele Roberts, Executive Director of the NBPA
NBA and NFL players have every right to feel however they want about cannabis reform in pro sports, but they should not let the scare tactics of cannabis opponents like Jeff Sessions be the sole reason to oppose meaningful reform. The Trump administration has yet to go after a professional athlete for cannabis consumption, and the Uncle Cliffy team feels that such a move is very unlikely. Sessions’ previous comments were just empty political rhetoric, proven by his flip flop yesterday when testifying before a Congressional committee, as covered by Forbes:
Obama-era guidance that allows states to legalize marijuana without federal interference remains in effect, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Tuesday during a congressional hearing. He also conceded that cannabis is not as dangerous as heroin and that a current budget rider prevents the Department of Justice from prosecuting people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
“Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes,” Sessions said, referring to his predecessors as attorney general during the Obama administration.
Professional athletes need to focus on what is right, just, and compassionate, and not be distracted by the words of politicians. League officials can no longer hide behind the ‘cannabis consumption may result in federal prosecution’ scare tactic to keep players from standing up for what’s right. Cannabis prohibition has failed. That is true in professional sports just as it is true in society.
Cannabis prohibition has a disproportionate impact on racial minority communities, and league cannabis prohibitions perpetuate institutional racism. Every professional athlete should oppose such a policy. Suffering players should be allowed to use a safer, effective medicine like cannabis, no matter where they live. Only time will tell if the recent comments by Jeff Sessions will sway players and league officials, but it is the sincere hope of the Uncle Cliffy team that it proves to be the case sooner rather than later. Free the plant!
Clifford Robinson is a proud resident of Portland, Oregon. Cliff played for the Portland Trail Blazers for 8 seasons, having been named an NBA All-Star and NBA Sixth Man of the Year while playing with the Blazers. Robinson ranks in the top ten in several Blazer career statistical categories. Portland is home to part of Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District, which is the district represented by Congressman Earl Blumenauer.
The Uncle Cliffy team has covered Congressman Blumenauer’s pro-cannabis efforts in the past. In mid-October Blumenauer testified in a Congressional hearing in support of cannabis as a viable solution to combat the opioid epidemic. Congressman Blumenauer has been a champion of cannabis reform in the political world for a very long time, having led the effort in Oregon’s Legislature in 1973 to successfully decriminalize cannabis possession. The successful effort made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize cannabis.
Congressman Blumenauer has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or strongly supported every pro-cannabis reform measure that has been introduced in Congress since he became a United States Representative in 1996. Blumenauer was recently interviewed by TMZ, and during the interview, Earl Blumenauer had something to say specifically about sports cannabis reform. Per TMZ:
“It’s much less damaging than the opioids, the painkillers, the shots, the pills … and it’s time professional sports stops punishing them but works with them.”
Congressman Blumenauer says 2/3 Americans have legal access to medical marijuana — so to ban NBA and NFL players is basically treating them like “second class citizens.”
Earl Blumenauer’s endorsement of ending cannabis prohibition in professional sports is a big deal. As far as the Uncle Cliffy team is aware, he is the first member of Congress to specifically express support for cannabis reform in professional sports. Hopefully his support encourages other members of Congress to do the same, and also hopefully it is an endorsement that league officials in the NBA and NFL see and are swayed by. If fans, players (current and retired), members of sports media, and members of Congress all keep calling on the leagues to end cannabis prohibition, they will have to listen and get on the right side of history.