Mueller: To convincingly argue that the NFL should continue to test players for marijuana and punish them for failed tests, I’m going to have to try to get inside the head of an NFL owner, Being John Malkovich-style. (Suddenly, I have the urge to threaten relocation unless my demands for a publicly funded stadium are met.)
The easiest argument against the NFL becoming a progressive leader on a subject that engenders progressive feelings from Americans, as you noted, is that the league has almost always tracked toward regressive, punitive and short-sighted with virtually all of its decision-making, so why reverse course now?
Football is a conservative sport in terms of the pace at which the game itself changes, and the NFL is a conservative league in terms of its interaction with society at large. Properly defining a catch took the better part of 20 years, and free agency didn’t come to the sport until 1993.
What’s more, the whole operation is dripping with cynicism. The league’s relationship with the military came under heavy scrutiny a few years back, and it’s reasonable to assume that the league is willing to wait until marijuana is legal at the federal level before it rolls back its prohibitions on players using.
Whenever that does happen, you’ll likely see plenty of ads during NFL games for marijuana dispensaries, just like the steady legalization of sports betting in various states has re-ignited a boom in advertising by DraftKings and FanDuel. Of course, as seen with the suspension of Arizona’s Josh Shaw for gambling on the NFL, the league is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to take a tough stance on gambling but knows how vital it is to football’s overall popularity.
You say that the league looks cowardly, cruel and reactive by waiting for full federal legalization. I say, why rock the boat if keeping marijuana illegal isn’t hurting the bottom line? Turn on any sports talk show in the country, and if a star player on the local teams has failed a drug test, there’s no sympathy to be found. Fans don’t seem to care about the long-term havoc that drugs such as the pain-killer Toradol wreak on players’ bodies, and also don’t seem to have sympathy for players who want to smoke weed for therapeutic reasons.
Fans want their team to win, and every issue is viewed through that prism. The NFL takes action only when cornered, as it did when TMZ leaked video of Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident. Public sentiment might be overwhelmingly in favor of marijuana legalization, but in the NFL’s bubble, there isn’t any reason for urgent action, so why take any?
Tunison: Generally, sure, the culture of the NFL is conservative and the league only budges on things when it must. But the NFL has backed itself into a corner with marijuana, especially because of the league’s handling of Colin Kaepernick and the ways it has tried to burnish its image as outrage builds in some quarters that he has been unable to get work.
To wit: The NFL established a host of social justice initiatives to placate players and fans who thought the league was too resistant on the protests against police brutality and systemic racism. A key part of criminal justice reform, which has been front and center in all of the campaigns the NFL has backed, is marijuana legalization, along with scrubbing prior convictions.
Backing these social justice initiatives might be a self-serving way to deflect criticism. That the league still so strictly enforces its ban on marijuana muddies their messaging, and makes it easy for detractors to point out that they are ultimately hollow. If the league is able to practice what it preaches in this respect, and it wouldn’t come at any financial or political cost, it could actually get through to some people. I’m not interested in helping the league move past blackballing Kaepernick, but if it is going to do it anyway, and it’s increasingly clear that it is, we might as well get positive policy changes out of it.