The league has a marijuana problem, and the league knows it.
On the surface, people like Commissioner Roger Goodell can justify the ongoing marijuana ban by calling it “unhealthy” and “addictive,” while ignoring that plenty of other things are “unhealthy” and “addictive” (like the pain medications players routinely take to keep playing) and overlooking the reality that the NFL has no business telling players what they can or can’t do on their own private time, when those things are wholly unrelated to their jobs. At a deeper level, the NFL knows that a straight-faced excuse for persisting in the pot prohibition must be articulated in conceal the real reason for it: Collective bargaining.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed years ago to prevent players from smoking marijuana. If the players want that to change, the league believes they need to be prepared to make a concession at the bargaining table. (Indeed, when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently argued to his colleagues that the NFL needs to change its position on marijuana, he was reminded that the players should give something up, if they want to get the power to use it.) Given that most players either don’t smoke or are smart enough to navigate the substance-abuse testing procedures, it will be difficult to persuade them to give something up for something that they don’t want or need.
The NFLPA meanwhile hopes to separately pressure the league to relax the marijuana restriction not because the league has secured a concession at the bargaining table but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s why NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said Tuesday on ESPN’s Outside The Lines (via SportsBusiness Daily), “We intended to present a proposal to the league that has probably more of a therapeutic approach to those who test positive for marijuana. The idea is simply to make sure that we understand whether a player is suffering from something other than just a desire to smoke marijuana.”
It’s a smart and reasonable position, and this is one of those occasions (rare as they may be) where the NFL needs to step away from back-and-forth, tit-for-tat of collective bargaining and agree that it’s in everyone’s interests to allow players who need marijuana for therapeutic reasons to use it instead of drugs far more unhealthy and far more addictive than marijuana.