Williams, who broke nine team records with the Dolphins and led the NFL in rushing in 2002, told the media, “I didn’t quit football because I failed a drug test, I failed a drug test because I was ready to quit football.”
Williams suffers from social-anxiety disorder and had even been a spokesman for the anti-depressant Paxil. After his failed drug test, Williams told the media that marijuana was “better for him” than Paxil because it was “just a plant,” adding that he had stopped using the pharmaceutical due to its side-effects.
Williams is by no means the first talented football player who risked his career because he appreciates good bud. Indeed, according to interviews given by Williams, marijuana use is common among NFL players. Williams claimed that most players use masking agents to pass the regular urine tests, and that the only reason he failed was that he forgot to drink the pee-cleansing potion.
The NFL doesn’t go easy on players who test positive for any banned substance. The first positive test gets a player two years of mandatory drug treatment, including up to 10 further drug tests each month. A second positive result gets the player fined their pay for four games. The third positive gets a minimum four-game suspension, and the next nets suspension for a full season.
Players don’t even need to get caught to be punished for toking up, just talking about it can be enough. One example of a player punished for being honest was Rashaan Salaam, who set a Chicago rookie record with 1,074 yards rushing in 1995. Salaam admitted to reporters in 1999 that he had started smoking pot a year earlier, when he sat out the ’98 season because of a leg injury.
“I never got caught, I never got put in the system or a drug program,” Salaam complained later. “Just me coming out and telling the world that I was being honest and that I was immature and going through some issues, trying to explain to everybody that I changed my ways. By doing that, it got me kicked out of the league, basically.”
The all-weed team
So many NFL players have been busted for pot offenses in recent years that ESPN writer DJ Gallo was able to create a mythical “All-Weed Dream Team” out of current or former All-Pros and Pro Bowl players known to be tokers.
The All-Weed team included players such as offensive linesman Nate Newton, (formerly of the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers, six-time Pro Bowl guard, busted in 2001 for having 213 pounds of pot in his van); wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad (of the Carolina Panthers, former Pro Bowler and eight-year veteran, served jail time in 1993 for violating parole on pot charges, pleaded guilty in 2002 to charges of possession of pot and carrying a concealed weapon); and quarterback Todd Marinovich, (first round pick of the Raiders in 1991, convicted for cultivation in 1998, nicknamed Todd Marijuanavich).
Another prominent footballer with a place on the All-Weed team is Mark Stepnoski, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys and Oilers. Stepnoski is a five-time Pro Bowl center, and while he was with the Cowboys the team won two Superbowls.
Stepnoski retired after the 2001 season, becoming an outspoken legalization advocate and serving as president of the Texas chapter of NORML. Although he never failed a drug test, Stepnoski now admits that he enjoyed “occasional, responsible use” of marijuana during his pro career, adding “after a game you need something to relax. I’d rather smoke than take painkillers.”
Stepnoski says he passed the drug tests because players knew when the tests were scheduled. “You just quit until you take the test and that’s it, you’re done. It wasn’t hard to quit because it’s not addictive. I didn’t cheat. I went in and took the test.”
Stepnoski has suffered some negative repercussions for his outspoken views on ending the war on pot. His high school reversed their decision to give him a place in their Hall of Fame because of his pot politics. Stepnoski recently moved to a place where his pro-pot attitudes will be accepted: marijuana-friendly Vancouver, BC.
No look at drugs and sports is complete without the classic tale of Dock Ellis, the controversial Pittsburgh Pirates player who pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1970… while he was high on LSD!
Ellis was preparing to enjoy a day off from baseball, and dropped acid with his girlfriend to enjoy his free time. But upon flipping though the newspaper he noticed that he was actually scheduled to play that day! So while the LSD kicked in he quickly booked a flight from LA to San Diego, reaching the stadium minutes before the game began.
“I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria,” writes Ellis in his autobiography, In the Country of Baseball. “The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder.”
Ellis waited until 1984 to publicly reveal that he had been on LSD, as the revelation would have damaged his career. The game he played on acid was the high point of his baseball career. Some sports writers have called it “one of the greatest achievements in the history of sports.”
A fondness for weed isn’t found only among top NFL players. Many of the NBA’s most skilled players are also known to enjoy a toke, often right before a game!
NBA players have been tested for pot since 1998, but the testing regime isn’t as stringent as that of the NFL. NBA players are drug tested at the start of training camp, and veterans who test negative don’t get tested again until next season.
Star NBA player Charles Oakley told the New York Post in 2001 that 60% of NBA players use marijuana. “You got guys out there playing high every night,” said Oakley. His claim matches a 1997 poll by the New York Times, which claimed that 60% to 70% of NBA players smoke pot.
The list of NBA players charged with marijuana possession in recent years includes high-profile names like Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Jason Williams, Lamar Odom, Isaiah “JR” Rider, Eddie Griffin, Damon Stoudamire, Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph, and many others.
Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was busted for possession in 1998, then again in 2001. Abdul-Jabbar told the media that he uses the herb for medical reasons, because it helps alleviate the nausea from his severe migraine headaches.
Love of pot in the NBA goes well beyond just the players. In January, the Chicago Bulls mascot was caught dealing buds from his car, getting busted with six ounces and a scale.
Stoned on soccer
In the rest of the world, “football” refers to what we like to call “soccer.” Like many athletes worldwide, these top football players also enjoy using marijuana, and they often pay the penalty.
For example, in 2003, the top goal-scorer in Zambia’s domestic league, Musonda Mweuke, pleaded guilty to possession of pot. He had been busted when cops caught him with an alleged dealer who was apparently supplying many players on the team.
Zambian police may have been trying to set an example, as the same day Mweuke was busted, three other soccer players were sentenced to jail terms for simple pot possession.
Two years earlier, top Zambian striker Rotson Kilambe had tested positive for cannabis and became the first African player to be banned by soccer’s world governing body, Fifa.
Earlier this year, 16-year-old player Emanuele Politti was suspended from the Italian Soccer League after testing positive for pot. A star player in the club’s youth squad, Politti had been called up for a game in the Italian Cup quarter-finals, because of numerous injuries to top players. But as a player in the major league, Politti was subject to the same drug testing as other adult players, got caught for pot, and was subsequently suspended.
Politti was a top player in the youth league, and his marijuana use didn’t seem to hurt his game. Yet since his positive test there has been a push to start testing all players in Italy’s youth leagues.
Cricketeers on cannabis
Although not played much in the US, cricket is also one of the world’s most popular team sports. And the world’s best cricket players like to get stoned.
In 2001, five players on the South African cricket team were caught celebrating their world championship victory with a celebratory toke in their Antigua hotel room. Despite having just won their sport’s highest honor, the players were substantially fined and censured by team management for their victory tokes.
Top cricket player Phil Tufnell, called “England’s most effective spinner of the decade,” was accused of being a toker in 1996, and was fined in 1997 for skipping out of a urine test.
Even talking about cannabis use gets cricket players suspended. Warwickshire all-rounder Paul Smith was given a 22-month suspension in 1997, for writing in a newspaper article that he had used marijuana and cocaine, and that cannabis use was common among cricket players.
Famed 1980’s cricket player Ian Terence Botham is considered by many to be England’s best “all-rounder” of all time. In the summer of 1986, Botham admitted through his newspaper column that he smoked marijuana. England’s cricket authority, the Test and County Cricket Board, quickly slapped him with a three-month suspension. Their reason was that “Botham set a wrong example for the young cricket fans.” Botham responded by attacking the “gin-swilling proclivities” of the Test selectors who had suspended him.
In his autobiography, Botham explained how cannabis use helped him to relax while on tour. “There were times when I hid in my room, had a joint and totally switched off,” wrote the star athlete, who newspapers proclaimed, “frequently carried the hopes of an entire nation on those broad shoulders.”
Global ganja ban
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is pushing for the adoption of a single international drug testing policy for all Olympic sports. And they want this policy to include a ban on pot.
Currently the international federations for gymnastics, swimming and skiing do test for marijuana, while those for track and field, basketball and soccer do not. WADA wants a unified standard where everyone tests for pot. Their criteria for banning a substance includes whether a substance endangers health, violates the spirit of sport, or enhances performance.
Larry Bowers, the senior managing director of the US Anti-Doping Agency, claims that marijuana enhances performance, by calming athletes’ nerves.
“One of the affects of marijuana is that it removes inhibitions,” says Bowers. “It makes [athletes]not afraid of going down a 45-degree hill doing triple flips.”
Is Bowers right? Does marijuana use enhance athletic performance? If so, it is unlikely to be because of its removing inhibitions, but rather cannabis’ well-known effect on slowing down the perception of time, and its ability to enhance perception of rhythm and movement.
Users of cannabis have long noted how cannabis creates a peculiar perception that time is extended, dubbed “time slowdown” by pot-promoting poet Allen Ginsberg in 1965.
Like a stoned jazz musician adding more complexity and beats to a song, time slowdown might allow an athlete to more rapidly evaluate different options, more quickly consider moves and maneuvers against competing players. This would also explain why pot is particularly popular in the NBA, as basketball especially combines rhythmic ball movement with quick outmaneuvering of other players.
Although many researchers are now investigating the amazing medicinal properties of marijuana, not enough is being done to understand how cannabis can actually enhance and improve human abilities. Discovering how toking up helps the world’s greatest athletes to better their performance could also teach us how this plant can better serve us all.