Marijuana has always been one of the greatest taboos in sports. Players use it, the professional leagues try to stop it through punishments and bans, and the cycle goes on. This has been happening ever since pot became popular in the ’60s.
Baseball in the ’70s
Baseball players were the first open users. Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee was nicknamed “The Spaceman” for good reason. He started smoking pot when he attended the University of Southern California in the mid-’60s. “I roomed with a bunch of long-distance runners that smoked marijuana,” Lee recalls. “That was the first time I partook. It just seemed really good to me.”
The Red Sox drafted Lee in 1968. He ended up starting two World Series games against the Cincinnati Reds in 1975. In 1979, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined him $250 for telling a reporter he’d used marijuana.
In a 1980 interview with High Times, Lee explained that he said he used, but didn’t smoke marijuana. So he told Kuhn’s representative, “I sprinkled it on organic buckwheat pancakes.”
“What would happen if Bowie Kuhn levied a $250 fine against every player in baseball who smoked dope?” the interviewer inquired.
“He’d be a rich man,” Lee retorted.
“Smoking’s a way to let you slowly down after a ballgame. It makes people better in the way they act towards society. Everybody’s nicer. It’s hard to be mean when you’re stoned.”
Lee is baseball’s Willie Nelson. He’s always asked about pot. These days, Lee’s into hemp. “I want to grow hemp,” he recently said. “I want to start a hemp uniform company, make all the kids’ Little League clothes, so they don’t get epilepsy.”
Whereas Lee brought levity to the subject when most people didn’t get the joke, others in baseball faced more serious repercussions. In 1975, retired slugger Orlando Cepeda, who’d played with the San Francisco Giants and five other teams from 1958-1974, was arrested in Puerto Rico with five pounds of pot he’d smuggled in from Colombia. He’d been a user for the previous 10 years—including the 1967 season, when he was voted the National League’s most valuable player and won the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals. Cepeda amassed 379 home runs, 2,351 hits and a .297 batting average during his 17-year career.
It took three years for Cepeda’s case to come to trial. He was found guilty in 1978, sentenced to five years in prison, served just 10 months and spent the rest of the sentence on parole. He was a likely candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the voters (baseball writers) refused to induct him, due to his conviction. However, the Veterans’ Committee voted Cepeda into the Hall in 1999.
A similar thing happened to Ferguson Jenkins, who won 284 games in his 19-year career with the Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and four other teams. In 1980, while he was pitching for Texas, Jenkins was stopped at Customs in Toronto; they found small amounts of marijuana, hashish and cocaine stashed in his bag. Commissioner Kuhn immediately suspended him, but after two weeks, an arbitrator rescinded it. The baseball writers inducted Jenkins into the Hall of Fame in 1991, in his third year of eligibility. Some think his pot arrest prevented him from being inducted sooner.
Basketball in the ’80s
By the ’80s, marijuana was making its way into other sports. Some of the greatest basketball players from the ’70s and ’80s were major users and advocates. This included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the National Basketball Association’s all-time points leader (38,387); Bill Walton, who’s probably best known to fans these days as a TV commentator and Deadhead; and Robert Parish, who played the most games in league history (1,611). All three are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Parish’s career is especially worth noting. He played 22 years while using marijuana. This became public in 1993 when he was arrested after police intercepted a FedEx package containing two ounces that was addressed to him. Thirty-nine years old at the time, Parish was the league’s oldest player. He’d won three championships (1981, 1984, 1986) as part of the Boston Celtics teams that included Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, and made the All-Star team nine times. The charge was ultimately dismissed.
While Abdul-Jabbar was never arrested for pot, he’s long endorsed its use. The six-time NBA champion (he won five with the Los Angeles Lakers in the ’80s) and six-time MVP wrote in his 1983 autobiography, Giant Steps: “When an athlete gets caught doing drugs, all hell breaks loose. Athletes are supposed to be America’s heroes. This is nonsense… I’ve certainly smoked my quota of weed.”
Abdul-Jabbar began toking before he changed his name from Lew Alcindor, when he was 17. “After that, I’d get high on the occasional weekend or at a parties every chance I could,” he explained. “For a while there at UCLA [where his team won three NCAA titles], I didn’t want to hang out with anyone who didn’t smoke reefer.”
Walton followed Abdul-Jabbar at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he also won three National Collegiate Athletic Association titles. Portland selected him as the No. 1 overall pick of the 1974 draft; three years later, he led the Trail Blazers to their only NBA title. In 1978, Walton went with the Grateful Dead to Egypt, where the band performed at the Pyramids. He’s attended more than 800 shows and is often seen towering above the crowd at Dead and Company shows.
In 2015, Walton criticized the NCAA on-air for suspending a University of Washington player for testing positive for marijuana. “This whole War on Drugs has been an absolute failure across the board,” he told ESPN followers. “Why are we punishing people for things that are legal? Why are people languishing in jail for things that are illegal?” Walton was well aware that Washington State voters had legalized marijuana in 2012.
Olympians Under the Microscope
Olympic athletes, who are heavily drug-tested, have to be especially careful. Even being around secondhand cannabis smoke can get you in trouble, as Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati discovered during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. His men’s snowboarding gold medal was rescinded after his blood test came back positive for THC, but Rebagliati was able to convince the officials that he hadn’t actually smoked but was only around it; they accepted his explanation and returned the medal.
Since then, Rebagliati has been one of Canada’s leading cannabis advocates. In 2013, he founded Ross’ Gold, which merged with Green & Hill in 2014. His line of glass bongs and pipes, and CBD edibles is currently available in shops across Canada.
In 2009, Michael Phelps also got caught up in a cannabis controversy when a photo of him taking a bong hit at a frat house in Columbia, S.C. went viral. Phelps was quick to call his marijuana use “bad judgment” and a “mistake.” He was suspended for three months by USA Swimming and lost his Kellogg’s sponsorship.
Prior to this, Phelps had won 14 gold medals at the Summer Games in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). He took four more gold medals in London (2012) and five in Rio de Janeiro (2016); including silver and bronze, he collected 28 medals in his career.
While some criticized him for his marijuana use, Phelps’ problem had been alcohol. He was arrested for driving under the influence twice, in 2004 and 2014, and sentenced to 18 months of probation each time. After the second conviction, Phelps was suspended again by USA Swimming (this time for six months) and entered a treatment program. Following the Rio Games, he retired from competitive swimming.
Football from the ’90s Until Now
By the first decade of the 21st century, arrests and suspensions of athletes began to reach all-time highs. Most of them involved National Football League and college football players. During the off-season in 2004, Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams tested positive for marijuana. After the NFL suspended him for four games, he decided to retire from football. He spent the rest of the year in India studying Ayurvedic medicine and practicing yoga, not the usual pursuits of an NFL pile-driver.
After a year off, a refreshed Williams returned for the 2005 season and completed his suspension. But shortly after Super Bowl XL, he failed another drug test, and was banned again, this time for the entire 2006 season. Williams went north, signing a contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. In 2007, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated him. After several injury-plagued seasons, he finished his career with the Baltimore Ravens without further incident.
“When I played and I smoked, my body would relax,” Williams reflected in 2014. “I’d go in my room and stretch a little bit and do some yoga. Relaxing would help my body recover. Everyone knows if your muscles relax, the blood is going to flow, which means more blood, more oxygen and more nutrients, which decreases healing time.”
Williams was onto something. Since then, football players have been increasingly turning to cannabis as an alternative to prescription drugs, which are handed out like candy by team trainers. During and after their careers, many players get addicted to opioids to deal with the pain from all the crushing hits they’ve taken and delivered on the gridiron.
In his 2016 Freedom Leaf interview, former All-Pro lineman Kyle Turley contended, “Cannabis will save football.” Turley suffered numerous concussions and serious injuries during his 10 years with the New Orleans Saints and two other teams. “I need a cane every now and then,” he admitted. “At any moment I can throw my back out, which I’ve done multiple times. Cannabis is allowing me to get my life back. I’m back in the gym now. My emotional state is so much more positive. I don’t take any painkillers and muscle relaxers anymore. Cannabis kept me from all those things.”
Fellow lineman Eugene Monroe, unlike most players, didn’t wait for his career to gradually come to an end. Released by the Ravens in May 2016, he hung up his helmet and uniform for good six weeks later. A medical-marijuana advocate and user, he donated $80,000 to CW Botanicals and Realm for Caring in Colorado Springs last year.
“I plan to continue to be a vocal advocate of medical-marijuana research, particularly as it relates to CTE,” explained Monroe, whose NFL career lasted just seven years. “More steps need to be taken to curb the overuse of opioids in NFL locker rooms. I won’t rest until something is done.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease that can only be detected after death in autopsies. It’s caused by multiple concussions and cumulative severe blows to the head. “The last 18 years have been full of traumatic injuries to both my head and body. Do I have CTE?” Monroe wondered. “I hope I don’t, but more than 90% of the brains of former NFL players that have been examined shows signs of the disease. I’m terrified.”
In a recent study by neurologist Dr. Ann McKee, the brains of 202 deceased players were tested. Of the 111 NFL veterans’ brains examined, 110 had CTE. Linemen like Turley and Monroe, who knock heads on every play, were the most likely to have the disease.
Other former players who’ve taken a stance in favor of cannabis over opioids and encouraged the NFL to allow players to use medical marijuana include Jim McMahon, quarterback for the Super Bowl XVIII champion Chicago Bears; Marvin Washington, a lineman for the Super Bowl XXXII champion Denver Broncos; quarterback Jake Plummer; tight end Nate Jackson; defensive lineman Leonard Marshall; cornerback Clayton Holmes; and offensive lineman Mark Stepnoski, who’s been on NORML’s advisory board for the last 15 years.
More Support from the NBA
Former NBA players like three-time champion John Salley and former Blazer Cliff Robinson are also at the forefront of this movement. Both have cannabis businesses: Robinson has a line of Uncle Cliffy products available at Oregon pot shops, and Salley and his daughter Tyla are working on their own cannabis line as well. And Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been known to use marijuana for back pain.
“I don’t think there’s any question that pot is better for your body than Vicodin,” says Kerr, winner of five NBA titles as a player with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, and two more as coach of the Warriors. “And yet, athletes everywhere are prescribed Vicodin like it’s Vitamin C, like it’s no big deal. The conversation is really about pain relief in sports… You get handed prescriptions for Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet. That’s what NFL players are given. The stuff is awful and dangerous. The issue that’s really important is how do we do what’s best for players?”
Many athletes have decided that cannabis is best for them. Now it’s up to the leagues to put an end to one of the world’s greatest taboos.
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