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.