What the NFL’s New Weed Rules May Mean for Professional Sports

The players union and the NFL have reached a new agreement. Will it be a turning point for cannabis in the big leagues?

Thanks to the timing of the NFL schedule, the league has yet to officially lose any games as a result of COVID-19. However, with each passing day, the likelihood of the season starting as scheduled on Sept. 10 continues to grow grimmer. 

And yet, somehow, things have continued.

Though the feasibility of practice camps remains a sizable concern, the NFL still managed to hold its annual April draft by converting it into a live-streamed event. As NFL fans and officials alike nervously wait to see what will happen with the 2020-2021 season, there’s at least one major change that is already assured.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of pandemic-related news and draft analysis is the fact that the NFL recently evolved its position on players consuming cannabis. Ratified on March 15, the new ten-year labor agreement between the league and the players union is notably less restrictive when it comes to testing and punishment as related to marijuana use.

As the New York Times reports, players who test positive for cannabis will no longer be suspended. Moving forward, testing will also no longer take place throughout a five-month period but instead be limited only to the first two weeks of training camp. In lieu of suspensions, the NFL will instead fine players an amount based on the number of positive tests they’ve accumulated.

The new agreement also continues the league’s policy of requiring first-time offenders to participate in a mandated treatment program. Failure to attend the NFL’s program may result in additional penalties, with suspension listed as a possible consequence. Thus, even as the NFL puts the threat of punitive measures on the backburner, the league continues to resist any policy that would outright end testing players for cannabis.

Even if these new rules fall far short of ideal, they still represent a seismic change for the professional sports world.

One fascinating topic of discussion concerns two of the league’s franchises: the Green Bay Packers and the Tennessee Titans. Both must now grapple with the paradox of playing their home games in states where cannabis remains fully illegal. How does a player who often visits numerous states in a single season navigate the patchwork status of legality across the U.S.? The NFL may counter that their newest rules are hardly an endorsement for cannabis (a positive test is still a fineable offense, after all) but will this relaxed position encourage more players to travel with products on their person? If so, the disparity in consequences between the league and law enforcement is sure to come under close scrutiny.

For some ex-players, this moment is still a stepping stone to a larger goal. In 2016, former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe became the first active player to call for the NFL to stop testing for cannabis. Today, the topic is far more widespread. Once relegated to the fringes of sports columns, the stage has now grown to include the likes of (temporarily-retired) tight end Rob Gronkowski hawking CBD products on NBC’s Nightly News

While Gronkowski’s interest in CBD almost assuredly has more to do with money than marijuana, the fact remains that NFL players past and present are suffering from brain damage, getting addicted to opioids, and being kept standing on two feet thanks to stuff like Toradol. From issues of pain relief to stress to appetite, the potential benefits of cannabis as an alternative medicine for football players remain immense.

Team owners seem pleased with the agreement as well, with some speculating that conceding on cannabis was the onus for the league to get their way on other concessions. Regardless of their motivations, the actions of the NFL have paved the way for North America’s other major sports leagues to continue one-upping each other in relation to progressive cannabis policies.

At present, the NHL is arguably leading the way with a policy that does include testing but does not punish players. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, removed cannabis from its list of banned substances in December. Players in the NBA are given four random tests for cannabis throughout the season, with positive tests resulting in an escalating series of punitive measures.

As the popularity of cannabis continues to grow — coupled with ongoing and anticipated research — it may come to pass that these relatively small ripples on the part of the NFL may one day lead to tidal waves.

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