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- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
Ricky Williams smoked marijuana a few times in high school, and a couple of times when he played football for the University of Texas. But the first time he noticed the drug helped him relax was during his senior year of college.
“I had a really bad breakup with my girlfriend,” Williams said. “And she started dating the quarterback, like the day after we broke up.”
Williams’ roommate noticed he was distraught, and suggested he smoke marijuana.
“I did,” Williams said. “And that was the first time I noticed, ‘Wow, this helps.'”
Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, was drafted No. 5 overall by the Saints in the 1999 NFL draft. It wasn’t until his second year in New Orleans that he said he began smoking on a regular basis. “I really used it as an aid to recovery,” he said. “After busting my ass at practice, I’d come home and smoke a little bit, and I felt good. It helped me get up the next day, ready to go back to work.”
Williams is best known today as a cautionary tale for the NFL’s long-standing — and harsh — disciplinary system for players who smoke weed. Recently, the NFL and other professional sports leagues have loosened their marijuana policies to reflect society’s changing attitudes. So it’s fair to imagine how Williams’ football career could have played out differently.
“The punitive nature of the program … That was the biggest evil.” Ricky Williams
Instead, here is what happened: In March 2002, Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins. Williams says he didn’t know he would be tested for drugs during OTAs. “They told me the day before,” Williams said. “But it was too late.”
Williams tested positive for marijuana, and he entered the NFL’s drug program. The league flew Williams to Atlanta, and he spent the day talking to three different psychiatrists. “And they decided … that I had a problem,” Williams said. He was assigned a drug counselor to meet with for an hour each week. He was tested for drugs nine times each month. If he ever left town, he had to call and tell the NFL where he was going.
“I just felt like a criminal,” he said. “That was the hardest part about it.”
Williams failed a second test. He was fined 4/17th of his salary. “That’s when I decided I would retire,” Williams said. “It wasn’t even about the cannabis at that point in my life. I just felt like I had given my entire life to football, and it didn’t feel very meaningful to me.”
Listen: Former NFL RB Ricky Williams and ESPN’s Emily Kaplan assess the new NFL CBA’s changes to the league’s drug policy, and break down cannabis policy reform across pro sports on the ESPN Daily podcast.
At age 27, Williams walked away from the sport and went on a spiritual journey. A year later, he wanted back in. “I realized I had to come back to the NFL to clear my name,” he said. “To leave on better terms.”
In 2006, while still with the Dolphins, he failed another drug test. Williams said it was not for marijuana, but because he already was flagged in the NFL’s system, he was forced to sit out the entire season.
Williams still amassed 10,000 rushing yards over 11 seasons in his NFL career. But he missed two seasons — both in prime years for a running back — which can be traced back to one positive marijuana test his second year in the league.
“The punitive nature of the program,” Williams said. “That was the biggest evil.”
The marijuana stigma that plagued Williams’ NFL career is eroding, if not gone entirely from an enforcement standpoint. In January, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Now, of the 123 teams across MLB, the NBA, NHL and NFL, 50 play in states or provinces where recreational marijuana is legal (40.6%). Another 51 teams play in jurisdictions where medical marijuana is legal (41.5%). That’s 82% of teams (101 of 123) that are playing in cities where a player can walk down the street, go into a dispensary, and legally purchase either recreational or medicinal marijuana — just like they were buying a six pack of beer.
The only states in which any of the four major pro league teams play where there are no broad laws legalizing marijuana are Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
Sports leagues have adapted. Last year, we wrote about the NHL’s marijuana approach — predicated on treatment, not punishment — which at the time was the most progressive in professional sports. Today? It’s actually the norm.
The NFL ratified a new CBA in March with a drug policy quite similar to the NHL model. The NFL significantly raised the threshold for positive tests (from 35 nanograms to 150) and eliminated its previous window of testing, which spanned from April to August to the first two weeks of training camp. In other words, if players want to smoke weed in the offseason, they are free to do so. But most importantly: Players are no longer suspended solely for marijuana. If a player were to test positive, his case is reviewed by a panel of medical experts who determine if the player needs medical treatment. “Certainly, we see that society is changing its views, but views only change because key facts become more and more obvious to the people who make policy,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
MLB and its union negotiated a new drug policy in December 2019 following Tyler Skaggs’ death. While the new policy added testing for opioids, fentanyl and cocaine, plus synthetic weed — with positive tests being referred to a treatment board — cannabinoids were taken off the league’s drugs of abuse list. That wasn’t a huge deal for MLB players, who were only previously tested for marijuana if there was “reasonable cause.” It was, however, monumental for minor leaguers, who were regularly tested and faced steep fines and suspensions — including a 50-game ban for a first-time offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for the third strike. “The way the league had the rules set up, it was ridiculous,” said longtime MLBPA agent Joshua Kusnick. “I can’t even imagine how many guys’ careers were ruined over marijuana. I personally had clients whose careers were derailed because of it. If you were a fringy prospect and you were popped for marijuana, you were released because teams didn’t want to deal with it. And if you were released, you couldn’t serve your suspension. So who is going to sign you if you had 50 games to wait?”
The NBA’s policy has remained the same — and is now actually the harshest in North American professional sports. A first positive test means a player must enter the marijuana program. The second positive test calls for a $25,000 fine. The third infraction is a five-game suspension, and five more games are added to each ensuing violation (10 games for a fourth positive test, 15 games for a fifth, etc.). However, the NBA does not test players during the offseason, and the union and league agreed to not test players during the league’s coronavirus hiatus. Commissioner Adam Silver, who has had ongoing discussions with the players association about the drug policy, addressed the complexities ahead of the 2019 NBA Finals interview with Yahoo Sports. “One of the things I’ve been talking more about in the last year is mental wellness of our players,” Silver said. “And look, some guys are smoking pot just in the same way a guy would take a drink. And it’s like whatever, ‘Smoking pot, I’m just using it to come down a little bit or I just want to relax.’ No big deal. No issue. And I think it’s the reason why it has been legalized in a lot of states. And from that standpoint, if that were the only issue, maybe we’re behind the times in our program. On the other hand, there’s also guys in the league who are smoking a lot of pot. And then the question is, why are you smoking a lot of pot? And that’s where mental wellness comes in. Because I’ve also talked directly to players who say, ‘I’m smoking a lot of pot, because I have a lot of anxiety. And I’m struggling.'”
Jerry Jones had long been vocal about changing the NFL’s marijuana policy. And just because the Dallas Cowboys owner is typically outspoken on most topics, it doesn’t mean his peers didn’t quietly agree. From a pragmatic standpoint, owners want their players to be available. The NFL’s long-standing drug policy often felt draconian. Williams was far from the only cautionary tale. Consider Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, who went 616 days between regular-season games because of suspensions.
It raises the question: Why was it so harsh to begin with?
“The weed policy in the NFL exists because it is purely a collective bargaining piece,” said one current NFL agent. “That’s it. That’s the only place it has in the NFL.”
The NFL Players’ Association had pushed the NFL to change the drug policy well before this year, but the NFL always insisted that it should be bargained. That meant there were only a few opportunities to do it, and players would have to concede something.
The NFLPA asked to loosen marijuana penalties in 2011 CBA talks. However, the league insisted on adding human growth hormone testing, and the NFLPA didn’t want that, so the issue remained moot. In 2014, both sides redid the drug policy. The NFL introduced HGH testing and relaxed some on marijuana penalties — including increasing the threshold for a positive test — but it still didn’t go as far as the NFLPA wanted.
It wasn’t until this past CBA in 2020 that both sides agreed to a much more relaxed marijuana policy — largely because it was part of an agreement that included a 17-game schedule (something the owners badly wanted). Sources say many people in the league office wanted to keep stringent marijuana testing — again, it’s a bargaining chip — but owners pushed for leniency, as they wanted their players on the field. “The league’s considerations included a number of issues, including its status legally, but most important was always the advice and recommendations of the medical and clinical professionals,” Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman, told The New York Times.
NFL players are diverse, and not all members supported loosening the policy — just as not all members supported the idea that players should be tested to begin with. Ultimately, the NFLPA felt it was important to keep testing in the CBA because marijuana is a drug that can be abused. If a player is self-medicating for deeper issues with marijuana, the new policy has safeguards that will allow the NFLPA and its doctors to intervene, and help that player and come up with a better treatment plan.
For professional athletes, advocacy for a more lenient marijuana policy has typically centered around pain and mental health management. Last year, we introduced you to “Player X” in the NHL. That player likes to take a few hits of his vape pen after games “just to relax.” “Honestly, it’s the easiest and most natural way for me to fall asleep and be ready for the next day,” the player said. He is able to walk five blocks from his downtown condo in the city that he plays, show his ID, and purchase a marijuana cartridge legally.
So, why do leagues continue to have an issue with it?
Ricky Williams has wondered that for years, and it has led him to do his own research. “I would ask people about their first experience where they really noticed that cannabis did something for them,” Williams said. “And 85% of people with a similar story [as me], whether it was a physical injury or some emotional issue, that they noticed that it gave them some reprieve.”
Kusnick remembers getting a call from his client, Jeremy Jeffress, in 2009. At the time, the 21-year-old Jeffress was the top pitching prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers system. And he had just tested positive for the second time for a substance of abuse — which drew him a 100-game suspension. One more positive test, and Jeffress would face a lifetime ban.
Jeffress later admitted to marijuana use. In 2014, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he had juvenile epilepsy, and before he was diagnosed, was using marijuana to try to treat his symptoms.
“I still can’t believe they crucified anyone for marijuana for all of these years,” Kusnick said. “It was amazing how hard the PA (players’ association), specifically [general counsel] Bob Lenaghan had to work to help Jeremy deal with this, and they did a great job. But the amount of work we had to do behind the scenes, for marijuana, for one player, it pisses me off right now. Now, and this is reflected in legislation, marijuana is commonly accepted. [With the new drug policy] is cooler heads prevailed.”
So what’s next for marijuana in professional sports?
Many expect an eventual change in the NBA, though it’s unclear when. As Silver stated before to Yahoo, “I feel sometimes that, ‘It’s uncool that the league still tests for marijuana.’ And I think that’s not exactly where the state of the science on marijuana is. I think that, clearly to the extent it has medicinal qualities, those are things that we should be looking at. Where it’s in terms of pain relief, of course. And that’s something that’s being studied, not just by us.”
Silver alluded to the NBA potentially following the NFL’s lead when it comes to medicinal marijuana research. In May 2019, the NFL and NFLPA announced the creation of two joint medical committees, one of which will study the potential use of marijuana as a pain management tool. Team doctors — even in the NHL — typically have not prescribed marijuana to players, especially wary of federal laws prohibiting carrying the product across state lines.
“I hope leagues start to fund research,” Williams said. “Because one of the things that people are finding — and most of it is anecdotal right now — is that cannabis can help a lot of things athletes struggle with, like inflammation and pain. I think if used responsibly, it’s a lot more safer than current methods.”
Then there’s the NCAA. College athletics has loosened its marijuana policy a bit over the years — including 2014, when the NCAA reduced penalties for a positive test from a full season to 50% of the season, and 2019, when it more than doubled the threshold for a positive test from 15 to 35 nanograms. Could college athletics evolve even further?
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Last month, Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley called marijuana “the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
“To maybe give you an idea of some of the talks we’ve had, let’s say we had a player, maybe, that had an issue with abusing alcohol,” Riley told the media ahead of the Sooners’ spring practices. “It’s not necessarily illegal from an NCAA standard, this and that. We would sit down and talk to this player. We would get him counseling. We would approach it more from a wellness [standpoint] and being healthy for the rest of your life and putting yourself in good situations, helping you perform athletically, academically, all those things. We tried to do everything we could. And I don’t know that we’ve all necessarily been able to do that with marijuana, specifically because of the ramification of a guy testing positive.”
Added Riley: “I think as far as marijuana testing, we’re operating in a different world than it was 10 or 15 years ago. With laws, availability, the perception of it, everything’s changed. I think we have to continue to adapt to that.”
The NFL is embracing new realities — and it’s a landscape far different than Williams experienced a decade ago.
Just look at the 2020 NFL draft. Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton had a flagged drug test at the scouting combine, but it hardly rang alarm bells. “It’s one of those things where everyone is like, ‘OK, it’s stupid to fail the test that you knew was coming months out,'” said a current NFL scout. “But I’d be surprised if anyone moved him down their boards because of it. Weed is no longer a red flag.”
Becton was drafted No. 11 overall by the New York Jets. In the NFL’s adjusted policy, anyone who gets a diluted test will be referred to medical directors. The player will have a chance to explain himself. That player can then be entered into Stage 1 of the program, but he is not automatically referred in.
Becton could remain in Stage 1 of the NFL’s program for 60 days, but if he has no more incidents, he’ll simply be taken out. And if he does fail a future drug test, he could face fines, but it won’t affect his availability on the field.
That’s a huge difference from the previous policy, where if a diluted test was detected, the player would be automatically entered into Stage 1.
Just five years ago, Gregory slipped all the way to the second round, in part because of a flagged combine drug test — and pre-draft admission that he struggled with frequent marijuana use in the past. Gregory, like Becton, was put in Stage 1 of the NFL’s program. But once he entered Stage 2, he started getting suspended.
“I think as far as marijuana testing, we’re operating in a different world than it was 10 or 15 years ago. With laws, availability, the perception of it, everything’s changed. I think we have to continue to adapt to that.” Lincoln Riley
It’s only anecdotal for now, but one trend to keep an eye on is this: Players with marijuana issues in the past are wanting to get back into the NFL, like Percy Harvin.
Though Harvin was never suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in his eight-year career, he did admit to Bleacher Report in 2019 that he frequently smoked marijuana to help manage his anxiety. “There’s not a game — there’s not a game I played that I wasn’t high,” Harvin told BR. “And that’s what I kind of want the world to see today, is it’s not a stigma and people doing it and getting into a whole bunch of trouble. It’s just people that’s just living regular life that just got deficiencies or maybe just want to enjoy themselves. It’s a natural way to do so.”
Rob Gronkowski, who became the face of a CBD company when he retired in 2018, had advocated for the NFL to change its policies toward the drug. “I don’t want to be banned from playing the sport I love because I’m using a product that anyone can buy right off the shelf at their local pharmacy,” Gronkowski said at a news conference last year. “I’m not really sure why it’s banned.” So perhaps it’s not a coincidence Gronkowski signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this spring — after the NFL adopted a new CBA.
Gronkowski joins retired NFL players Steve Smith and Tiki Barber, retired NBA players John Salley, Kenyon Martin and Matt Barnes, NHL player Riley Cote, Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones and golfer Bubba Watson as athletes who have either promoted businesses or declared use of cannabis.
Add Williams to the list. At age 42, he is enrolled in two master’s programs, just launched a dating app and also founded an herbal company featuring cannabis-based products.
“Right now, I’m a student and entrepreneur,” Williams said. “And I’ve never been happier.”