The recent suspension of Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington has re-ignited the debate around the National Football League in regards to marijuana use and its substance abuse policy. Washington of course does not play for a team in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal – Washington and Colorado – however, the movement to legalize the narcotic shows little chance of slowing down any time soon.
Considering the time remaining on the league’s current collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that advocates of marijuana legalization will score a few more victories at the state level. Federal legalization itself seems more and more inevitable with each victory for its proponents, although it’s highly unlikely such a feat can be accomplished before negotiations on a new CBA.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has reiterated the league’s stance that marijuana is still illegal on a federal level and will remain banned by the NFL, but that’s beside the point. Even if marijuana backers gain legalization at the federal level, the league can still ban any substance it sees fit. After all, the league already has legal supplements on its list of banned substances.
From a legal standpoint, players who play in Seattle or Denver, or even players who fail a test after lighting up on the road in either city, have no recourse to file a lawsuit against the league. But, when has a lack of recourse ever stopped a person from filing a lawsuit over anything in America? The simple fact that the NFL can ban anything it wants will protect the league from such a lawsuit, and any attempt would likely be thrown out as a frivolous case.
The question though is what happens if an ambitious judge decides to hear the case? Will the player’s suspension be blocked by the courts while the case is litigated? Will he be entitled to recovery of lost wages during his suspension? Could players essentially use the court system to, at the very least, postpone the suspension during a heated playoff race?
Again, none of this is likely, but the possibility should motivate Goodell to address the issue with more specificity. If only to protect the league from possible litigation should a player sue on the basis that he did nothing illegal.
However, there is a bigger picture that seems to be ignored by both the league and the media. We’ve seen the power of social movements in this country over and over again. The movement to gain legalization for marijuana has already caused two states to approve the measure, but more importantly, the American public has changed its perception of the drug.
Recreational marijuana use is no longer considered a taboo subject in this country, which has emboldened those fighting this cause. Washington and Colorado will not be the only states to allow its citizens to smoke marijuana. As this movement continues to grow, many states will follow suit and put the league in an awkward position.
Granted, all of this is likely at least ten years away. However, considering the history of social movements in America and their impact on entities like the NFL, a ‘marijuana will continue to banned’ statement from Goodell will not be good enough. The league should be ahead of this issue instead of waiting to react each time a player tests positive, or a state legalizes marijuana.
If the NFL has banned marijuana use strictly because of its illegality, then hiding behind the federal ban of the drug likely has an expiration date. If the league is concerned about values and doesn’t want the league to be represented in such a way, then come out and say so. That argument against marijuana use carries much more weight with the players and the fans, especially considering the legality argument is already beginning to evolve into a murky situation.
When Goodell seems to sidestep the issue with blanket statements following each positive test, it creates doubt that he is on top of the issue. Has he considered what the future holds for marijuana legalization in the United States? Does he have a contingency plan in case the federal government passes legalization?
This is not an issue the league can afford to be blindsided by in the coming years. More states will legalize the drug and with each one the pressure will build on the federal government to act. The fact that the feds did not intervene in Washington or Colorado shows the states will not be prevented from their own legalization efforts.
For the moment, Goodell needs to be more open about the subject. These quick one-line statements need to be replaced with more dialog. He also needs to begin addressing the future of this issue, if not publicly than certainly behind the scenes. Not just to protect the league, but for the players and its fans as well.
Legalization in two NFL states and foreseeable future events make this issue both important for the league to address further, yet incredibly complex. There is no single answer for Goodell. No set protocol for going forward, but there can be if the NFL begins to look beyond a simple failed drug test and recognize changes in the culture of America will alter the league in years to come.
Follow Bo Reed on Twitter @LTRReed