As the NFL Draft gets under way, one of the hot topics inside the league is the growing number of top prospects who have admitted smoking pot or have been caught doing so.
Based on information obtained from NFL team executives, agents, scouts and trainers, just under one-third of the 327 players who attended this year’s NFL pre-draft scouting camp, or combine, had some incident involving marijuana turn up in interviews or background checks—which NFL teams collect and share before and during the event. This number represents a 30% increase from the season before. The NFL and its players union declined to comment on these totals.
While it’s impossible to know how many current NFL players smoke pot, there have been several incidents in recent years involving high-profile NFL players. In 2006, Ricky Williams of the Miami Dolphins, a former Heisman Trophy winner, was suspended for one year by the NFL after testing positive for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy for a fourth time. (He’s said publicly he has used marijuana.) Last year, according to two people familiar with the situation, Percy Harvin—a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings—tested positive for marijuana at the draft combine. In 2008, the same season that he was named Super Bowl MVP for the Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver Santonio Holmes was charged with marijuana possession, although charges were dropped in 2009. (Messrs. Williams, Harvin and Holmes did not return calls for comment.)
Kyle Turley, a former All-Pro lineman who retired in 2008, says he smoked marijuana at times throughout his 10-year NFL career. NFL players are only tested once for marijuana, between April and August, he says, so he stayed clean before the test and then felt free to smoke afterwards. He says he did so to relax and to help keep up his appetite to maintain his playing weight. “I know half the building of every NFL team smokes pot, or has, but it’s so taboo nobody will say it,” he says.
Mark Stepnoski, a former five-time Pro Bowl center who once served as president of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says he regularly used the drug during his playing career. For him, marijuana wasn’t about recreational enjoyment—it was a means of pain management. “It would just make me feel better,” he says.
While the overall rate of pot smoking among the NFL’s draft prospects isn’t out of line with the number of U.S. adults (41% by one recent study) who say they’ve tried the drug, the number of incoming players with marijuana histories is a source of concern for NFL teams. The NFL’s penalties for marijuana use are among the most severe in professional team sports, and a player who’s likely to test positive can hurt a team’s chances. William Thomas, a former Pro Bowl NFL linebacker who works as a scout for the Oakland Raiders, says NFL teams recognize “marijuana is a drug that more people have tried. It happens.” What the Raiders have to figure out, he says, is whether it’s likely to be an ongoing issue. In any case, Mr. Thomas says, “It’s definitely a mark against you.”
As debate on this subject continues, however, there is one question that hasn’t been widely considered. At a time when 14 states have made cannabis a legal medical option—and more than a dozen more have pending legislation or ballot measures to legalize medical marijuana—is it possible the NFL and its players union could consider allowing some players to take the drug if they can get legal perscriptions?
Given the painful nature of football, the chronic injuries it can produce and the increasing availability of medical cannabis, a growing chorus of former NFL players and physicians who prescribe marijuana says pot should be considered as a treatment for the most common ailments football players face.
Mr. Stepnoski believes marijuana is a better treatment than many prescription painkillers. “If given the choice, I think guys would be much better off taking a cannabis extract,” he says. Mr. Turley, the former lineman, says it’s “ridiculous that the NFL makes such a big deal out of a plant that has real medicinal values.”
Frank Lucido, a primary-care physician in Berkeley, Calif., who has two former NFL players as patients, says he believes marijuana is practically designed for football ailments, which range from headaches to depression to effects of violent contact. “The most common thing I see in NFL players is chronic orthopedic pain,” he says. In California, doctors are allowed to prescribe marijuana to any patient whose health they believe would be improved—and Dr. Lucido says football players could qualify for treatment. “I say marijuana should not be a banned substance [in the NFL]. It has too many medical benefits.”
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the league has had “no discussion” with its medical advisors or the players union about changing the league’s marijuana policy. “The program supports the health and safety of our players and the integrity of our game,” he says. Mr. Aiello added that the league doesn’t grant therapeutic use exemptions for medical marijuana. He said the league’s medical advisers say it is “extremely unlikely” that a person would have a condition that requires this medication and would also be able to play professional football.
Victor Prisk is a sports-medicine orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who has treated college-football players. He believes cannabis might be helpful for people with the kind of neuropathic pain related to multiple sclerosis—but he’s not certain it should be used for the sort of musculoskeletal pain that NFL players endure. Dr. Prisk says it could be argued that cannabis may be a performance-enhancing drug. “It can increase appetite for a lineman who needs to put on weight,” he says.
Not all NFL teams view marijuana equally. One college lineman who was projected to be picked in the first round of the draft Thursday identified himself as one of the players from the combine who admitted trying marijuana. When he told the teams, he said their reactions were wildly different. “Some really didn’t care, some went crazy over it,” the player said. “Honestly, it doesn’t help you play better, it just relaxes you after.”
One five-year NFL veteran said he would be wary of allowing medical exemptions for marijuana use. “What if it also leads to laziness and lack of responsibility?” he asks. “What if you become so relaxed, you want to stay in that state too often?”
Marijuana isn’t without risks. The government classifies it as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high tendency for abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says marijuana can impair coordination, and the center cites studies that show marijuana smoke contains carcinogens that can cause some of the same respiratory problems as those suffered by tobacco smokers.
There is one football league where players are not tested for marijuana—the Canadian Football League. Tad Kornegay, a linebacker with the Saskatchewan Roughriders says at least half of his teammates are open about smoking pot. “They say they do it for stress, and because they feel like they don’t hurt as bad,” he says. “Nobody comes to practice high.”
Tony Villani, a trainer who has worked with 70 NFL prospects over the past eight years, says he hasn’t seen any difference in the on-field work habits of players who admit to smoking pot. “There’s no correlation,” he says.
– Article from The Wall Street Journal.