With each passing year, cannabis is embraced by more and more Americans. The same is happening in American professional sports. Both the National Hockey League and National Football League recently amended their cannabis policies to say players testing positive for cannabis will not be suspended. Major League Baseball does not test players for cannabis use anymore. Even the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced this month it will no longer penalize fighters for using cannabis.
One league, though, has been uncharacteristically slow to modernize its cannabis policy – the National Basketball Association (NBA). Notably, the league stopped testing players for cannabis last year in the COVID-19-prompted bubble, where qualifying teams completed their seasons at Disney World and continued this policy in the 2021 season. However, league sources indicated the change is intended to reduce the likelihood of players catching COVID-19 and is only temporary. The NBA is now debating making this policy permanent, with advocates optimistic, and there are compelling reasons why it should.
Cannabis and the NBA
It is impossible to assess how many current NBA players use cannabis with precision. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that it might be widespread, suggesting that NBA fines and suspensions for players who test positive for cannabis have been weak deterrents.
Consider the comments of Kenyon Martin, who retired in 2015 after 15 seasons and estimated that 85% of professional basketball players used cannabis. In addition, in 2020, six NBA players anonymously surveyed by NBC Sports indicated at least 50% of the league consumed cannabis in some form, with the number potentially reaching as high as 85%.
Or consider the Golden State Warriors experience. During his tenure as a Warriors small forward, Stephen Jackson admitted to smoking cannabis before games to calm his nerves. His Warriors coach for the 2006-07 season, Don Nelson, was reportedly aware his players smoked cannabis, and, according to Jackson, would high-five them after they cleared their last drug tests of the season, seemingly accepting cannabis use and celebrating that they had evaded detection of use. That 2006-07 Golden State Warriors team, which had the worst record of that year’s Western Conference playoff teams, went on to upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round – a first in NBA history. Again, I realize this is anecdotal, but it seems that cannabis usage didn’t hold back this legendary underdog.
Invaluable Pain Relief
Every typical year, NBA players undertake a grueling 82-game, six-month season, which can extend months longer if they make the finals. Even the best-conditioned players pick up injuries. In states where it’s legal, cannabis can provide sorely needed relief.
Since retiring from the NFL, Baltimore Ravens star Eugene Monroe has been a staunch advocate for cannabis use to manage pain over prescription opioids. In an interview with The Washington Post, Monroe said about pain, “Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis.”
Banning cannabis only forces NBA athletes to turn to addictive opioids, despite having a far safer alternative available in states with legal cannabis.
A Progressive Reputation to Uphold
The NBA has fostered a reputation as being both the most player-friendly and the most socially conscious American professional sports league. For example, in the aftermath of the killing of Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic peacefully boycotteda playoff game, with no retribution from the league. The NBA also allowed players to replace their last names on jerseys with important messages related to social justice last year. These are but two recent examples in the NBA’s long history of promoting justice and equality.
The War on Drugs was responsible for the imprisonment of a disproportionate number of Black Americans, many because of cannabis, and our society is still suffering from the consequences. Although cannabis is now legal for adult use in 15 states and the District of Columbia, damaging and false stereotypes linger. The NBA – a progressive champion among sports leagues – should do what it can to help dispel these stereotypes by making its COVID-19-prompted cannabis testing policy permanent. This slam dunk policy change would stop unnecessary fines and suspensions, allow players to better manage pain where cannabis is legal, and reinforce the NBA’s reputation as a league with socially progressive policies that cares about its players and the issues that matter to them.