Almost exactly a week after being handcuffed on the side of a road for alleged marijuana possession, Dwayne Bowe will be playing in the NFL’s biggest game of the season in a state that legalized the same drug. In Missouri, a cop pulls him over for speeding, smells weed, finds a container labeled “Fire 0.6,” and Bowe has to get in the cruiser and take a mugshot before posting bail, setting off a controversy the Chiefs didn’t need. In Colorado, once new laws go into effect in January, a cop would presumably write Bowe a speeding ticket and send him on his way.
The debate over weed in NFL circles is just as divided as it is in the rest of the country. In one corner (we could call it the green corner) is a number of players who say marijuana has a medical purpose similar to painkillers, only without as much risk, as well as a needed stress reducer. In the other corner is federal law, league drug policies, and science that suggests that, at the very least, recreational drug use can be detrimental to athletic performance.
According to the Riverside police report, Bowe said “they smoked a little” — there were two other people in his car — but Bowe’s attorney says he is innocent. Still, it’s relevant to point out Bowe is on pace for the worst season of his career, and his arrest — whether he smokes pot or not — has sparked a debate that will only grow deeper with time. The case for marijuana use by NFL players is straight-forward. Logical, even, if you can get beyond the legal issues.
Football is a violent sport. A brutal exercise. We know that better now than ever before. The NFL’s current collective-bargaining agreement includes new rules about how much contact is allowed in practice, but that does nothing for how a body feels on Monday mornings after games. The NFL life is a constant cycle of taking on pain, managing it, then taking on more pain and managing that, too. It never stops. There is no such thing as a pain-free NFL player, no matter what time of the season it is. This is why painkilling shots and pills have a time-honored spot in the game’s culture. In the NFL, you can at least see how guys would think of smoking pot as getting treatment, not getting high.
There is some science at least partially on their side, too. Two years ago, three researchers in the American Journal of Sports Medicine wrote that, at low doses, pot can “decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension” among athletes (other effects, including an increased risk of addiction, accidents and lung cancer, were noted as well).
Talk to people in the game and you begin to understand why this is the case. Professional football is a stressful sport. A nerve-racking profession. NFL games are won on a razor’s edge. Any small mistake or triumph can turn a game and thus a season, which only exaggerates coaches’ natural paranoia. Players are made to believe that every play is critical, not just in the game but in their careers, which are usually short and often end abruptly.
“The life is intense, bro,” says one former player who didn’t want to be named in this column. “I don’t know anybody who can just be intense all the time, around the clock, never stop. You need to clear out sometimes. You have to. Everybody has a way. You’re asking about drugs, and it doesn’t have to be drugs. Some guys, it’s religion. Some guys, it’s a massage.
“I never smoked pot, but I know some guys did. Mine was alcohol and women. Is that any better than the guys smoking up? I don’t know.” The case against marijuana use by NFL players is also straight-forward. Logical, even beyond the legal issues. First of all, studies have shown that concentration and coordination can be affected up to 36 hours after smoking pot, so don’t believe anyone who says recreational use the night before a game won’t affect performance.
Longer-term side effects vaguely follow widely known stereotypes. Marijuana can be addictive, and stoners make for lousy athletes. All that unfiltered smoke being poured into the lungs can limit respiratory capacity, and habitual use has been tied (by scientists and screenwriters alike) to apathy, lessened ambition and bad judgment. Self-medicating the pain from a rough game is one thing, but it’s a hazy line that separates enough use to affect performance … and eventually income.
“Pills and shots are easy and it’s part of playing,” another former player said. “That’s how I saw it. Weed, it just isn’t worth the risk. You can get caught, and there’s still a stigma with it if you’re a borderline guy. Guys can smoke themselves out of the league without even realizing it.” Bowe’s arrest and the debate it has ignited in NFL circles is happening at an interesting point in history. A Gallup poll last month showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
There seems to be a growing acceptance in sports, too. The World Anti-Doping Agency increased its acceptable level of THC to better distinguish recreational users from cheaters. Last year, Texans owner Bob McNair was talking about how he would never allow a persistent user of drugs on his team, adding, “I’m not talking about someone who smoked marijuana.” At last summer’s Olympics, an American judo athlete was disqualified for testing positive after what he called an inadvertent consumption of a baked good containing marijuana, prompting many to wonder how that could’ve enhanced his performance.
Last year, former Lions player Lomas Brown made headlines by saying at least 50 percent of NFL players probably smoke marijuana. About 70 percent of prospects at the draft combine admitted to using the drug, according to an ESPN survey, and football players are the most frequent marijuana users in college sports, according to an NCAA report. None of this changes what Bowe did, of course. He is alleged to have broken the law, let his team down and could face punishment from the NFL. But his case and the location of Sunday’s game are reminders of an ongoing debate and evolving views that only figure to become more of a dialogue both in and out of sports.
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