Blog Post

How Will Marijuana Legalization Impact the NFL?

Tommy McDonald

As Colorado and Washington prepare to implement their new voter-approved marijuana legalization laws, the ripple effects are already being felt. From how to handle pending marijuana arrest cases, to regulatory issues, the impact of marijuana legalization will have a wide-ranging effect.

Writing for the Nation, David Zirin speculates on the possible impact legalization will have on sports, particularly the National Football League. For our non-sports fan readers, the NFL is a well-oiled, tightly controlled, multi-billion dollar ship that wants no part of any possible public relations or legal headaches. It already has plenty with Bounty-gate, player concussions and the replacement referee debacle from earlier this season.

And it certainly wants nothing to do with any potential marijuana-related controversy. However with two of its franchises – the Denver Broncos (cue the Mile High stadium jokes) and the Seattle Seahawks – smack dab in legalization nation, a marijuana-related issue is bound to surface. Even ESPN – former NFL linebacker and performance supplements expert, Bill Romanowski’s uniformed Reefer Madness diatribe aside – had an insightful discussion on topic.

But the league has already made it clear it has no intention of changing its prohibitive stance on marijuana.

Zirin writes:

The NFL is trying to nip this, please pardon the expression, in the bud. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello didn’t even let the Election Night confetti fall to the floor before he told USA Today, “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades. Marijuana remains prohibited under the NFL substance abuse program. The Colorado and Washington laws will have no impact on the operation of the policy.” In addition,’s Gregg Rosenthal made it even more crystal clear:  “Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have been warned. ‘It's legal’ won't be a valid excuse.”

Aiello's statements sound very iron-clad. The problem is that even by the NFL’s own guidelines, they are not actually true. As Mike Florio on pointed out, “The policy prohibits only the 'illegal use' of marijuana.  While players may not abuse legal substances like alcohol, legal drugs and alcohol may be used.”

Hmm. There seems to be a good bit of wiggle room in that statement, no?

The intersection of sports and drugs is a very tricky subject. The issues around the use of performance enhancement substances and the ability for sports leagues and their governing bodies to set rules and regulate their athletes is a complicated issue. The illegal use of steroids and other banned substances controversies in sports have generated a tidal wave of news coverage, and the debate continues.

However, as Zirin points out, marijuana, now legal in Colorado and Washington  - and also legal in 18 states for medicinal purposes - is in a different category altogether. While it is on the banned substance list, which was approved by the NFL Players association, marijuana does not appear to have any form of athletic performance enhancing properties. However, many legal substances, such as Adderall and even Viagra are currently used by players seeking a competitive edge.

Here’s where marijuana is different. Anyone who has ever buckled a chin strap knows that football takes a serious physical toll on the body. Many players have extolled marijuana’s anti-inflammatory and pain-relief benefits. And in a sport that talks a lot about player safety and health, by ignoring the medicinal benefits of marijuana in favor of prescription pain medicines to manage injuries, the NFL may be doing a disservice to the men who put the butts in the seats.

Again, from Zirin:

As a top player who asked to remain anonymous said to me, “I'd rather use marijuana edibles or vaporizer to manage pain over prescription pain pills. Much less addictive and less harmful to kidneys and liver."

Zirin’s piece is definitely worth a full read. You can find his piece here.

Editor’s note. The guys on the DPA media team are huge fans of David Zirin. His intersection of sports and politics always provides compelling insight into society through the lens of sports, the great equalizer.

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