Last month, in the two-week dead zone between conference championship games and the Super Bowl, the National Football League tried to buy itself positive media coverage using a tried-and-true public relations strategy: the wrong grass.
For many years the most punishing place in professional sports for cannabis users – with even qualified medical marijuana patients risking their livelihoods and careers – in 2020 the league has become (technically at least) more permissive than Major League Baseball, the NFL announced that it would fund research examining how beneficial the grass would be for its players.
The NFL was handing out a total of $1 million to two research teams investigating the value of cannabis as a pain management tool and as a neuroprotectant for “elite football players” who have suffered concussions, the league announced.
It might have been good for some positive media, had not former NFL head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit later in the day against the league and several teams, alleging systemic racial discrimination against black coaches.
But in Ricky Williams’ analysis, in the cannabis research announcement, the league revealed its long-term cannabis strategy and how marijuana has always been a tool for the league to boost its image with audience and players.
Cynical from the start, the league’s vendetta against cannabis is over. But in its place is something that, while still cynical, is at least less damaging, the former player-turned-entrepreneur and cannabis activist said in a recent interview.
“For the NFL to be on the positive side of the cannabis conversation is huge. We’re moving in the right direction,” Williams said. “I think the biggest win is the goodwill it will create with the players. “
“One of the biggest problems for the players is that they feel like the owners don’t care about us,” he added. “In my opinion, what’s major is that the guys are going to be like, ‘Okay, they’re really listening to us’.”
Williams’ career arc reflects the league’s attitude toward weeds. First draft pick after winning the Heisman Trophy in 1998 as college football’s most outstanding player, Williams sadly retired from football in 2004 for violating the league’s drug abuse policy after a series of tests of marijuana misfires.
After studying yoga and traveling, he returned the following year, only to miss the 2006 season after another drug policy violation, developing a negative reputation and absorbing undeserved opprobrium – all because the league was trying to project a certain image, Williams mentioned.
“I had a conversation with [former head coach and executive] Bill Parcells on that,” Williams said of the league’s longstanding draconian attitude toward cannabis.
“He explained that it was basically for the reputation of the league,” he said. “You know: in the 1980s, there was a big DARE program and anti-drug sentiment in our country. It was really about protecting the image of the league.
The 1980s “Just Say No” also coincided with a high-profile drug problem in the league, but with cocaine, with several players undergoing very public struggles before the league began urine testing in the mid-1980s. 1980.
Notably, cocaine is water-soluble and clears the body within days compared to weeks for the fat-soluble metabolites of cannabis. So the league’s drug abuse policy didn’t do much for player safety, but it did give the league a no-nonsense, no-nonsense look.
“When I learned that, it became clear that things won’t change until the NFL is convinced that the fans are okay with players using cannabis,” Williams said.
It’s also why, back when Williams had his long suspension struggles with the league in the mid-2000s, there were no players or players’ union representatives willing to stand up and support him. Only a tiny handful of states had medical marijuana laws. The first legalization laws will not pass until 2012. Then the walls collapsed.
A decade later, weed is more popular than the NFL itself, or at least less hated. Thirty-three percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of the NFL, according to a Harris poll conducted last fall. Only 9% of Americans think cannabis should be illegal, according to Gallup.
The NFL was slow to follow. But now, with between half and 89% of NFL players using cannabis themselves, the NFL can use its marijuana policy to attract players, who are well aware of the league’s continuing structural problems, such as racial disparities in front offices, coaching teams. , and property suites highlighted by the Flores suit.
The research program, then, “will definitely earn a lot of goodwill from players,” Williams said. It will also allow the NFL to follow public opinion and remove cannabis from its list of prohibited substances in due course…after it is studied, to finally “reveal” what almost everyone already knows.
“In my opinion, they are doing this research to justify removing cannabis from the prohibited list. They tick the boxes,” he said. “Think about it: they’ve suspended so many players, they’ve ruined people’s lives because of it. It’s hard for them to give up and say, ‘Oh, we made a mistake. They have to say: ‘Okay, we’ve done our research.’ »
“It’s that game,” he said. ” But I understand. Whatever it takes.
Like other former and current athletes who have found cannabis compatible with a healthy physical lifestyle, Williams is now a cannabis entrepreneur, with a lifestyle brand and line of cannabis products called Highsman.
Leading up to the Super Bowl, Highsman collaborated with Jeeter, a leading pre-roll company, on variety and limited-edition merchandise. Proceeds went to Athletes for CARE, a non-profit organization that champions the physical and mental well-being of athletes.
You wouldn’t have heard of this watching the big game. Before the NFL allowed cannabis companies to buy Super Bowl ad time the same way airtime is gobbled up by companies promoting cryptocurrency and online gambling – two other recent American passions, but, unlike cannabis, both federally legal – Congress will have to legalize marijuana federally first.
“Two years at the most,” Williams predicted. Which means that if NFL-funded studies get the right results soon enough, the league could find itself in the previously inconceivable position of taking a pro-cannabis stance before the federal government. That would look pretty good.