The discussion ranged from how the landscape has shifted since Williams’ playing days to the potential for cannabis profitability in professional sports.
In yet another sign that the world is once again finding its equilibrium in the wake of the pandemic, the first SXSW festival in three years is in full swing in Austin, Texas. Boardroom and Thirty Five Ventures Co-Founder Rich Kleiman was on hand to address cannabis testing policies in sports alongside former Heisman Trophy winner and all-time great NFL running back Ricky Williams, as well as Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals.
The public’s stance on cannabis has changed significantly over time. But there is still a lot of progress to be made when it comes to how sports leagues and governing bodies treat and regulate cannabis use.
There are scores of examples of high-profile professional athletes who had their careers ruined, ended, or significantly altered as a result of a failed drug test for marijuana, and there is perhaps no better example than Williams. Then-New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka traded away his entire draft for the opportunity to select Williams with the No. 5 overall in the 1999 NFL Draft , and the weight of the world fell squarely on the Texas Longhorns legend’s shoulders.
Over time, Williams turned toward cannabis to deal with the stress and everyday “wear and tear” of playing arguably the most physical position in one of the world’s most violent games. Shortly after being traded to the Miami Dolphins, Williams’ cannabis use led to him abruptly announcing his retirement prior to the 2004 season after failing a third drug test, which triggered an automatic year-long suspension from the NFL.
Williams proceeded to be labeled a “pothead” by the media, and he became a punchline at the time. After coming out of retirement in 2005, Williams once again tested positive for marijuana and was suspended for an entire season.
In the years since the NFL effectively made an example out of Williams, cannabis testing policies across the four major sports leagues in the U.S. have softened considerably. There is essentially an unwritten agreement between the players and the league(s) that the league(s) will effectively “look the other way” on cannabis use.
For example, the NFL makes it well-known that the only time players will be tested will be during a two-week window in training camp. Surprisingly enough, the NBA has probably lagged behind the most on their marijuana testing policy as they are technically still in the midst of a “temporary suspension” of random testing, which was spurred by the pandemic and the COVID-19 restart.
The pandemic has also been an accelerant to states softening their stances on marijuana legalization.
“Players are closer than ever to being able to be open about their cannabis use, and right now, they are closer than ever to crossing that line,” Kleiman said during the SXSW panel. “The pandemic gave those guys a little bit of a reprieve.”
Kleiman specifically sees the business prospects of cannabis and its ability to be a revenue stream for players, leagues, and other entities in sports as a driver of mainstream adoption and acceptance in sports.
“Sports and cannabis will be mutually beneficial in that there will be more money,” he said. “Right now, you already have prominent former players like Al Harrington and Allen Iverson who already have their own strains. The work towards this end is already being done now so someone like Kevin [Durant] can approach someone like Ricky Williams and just say bake this thing — no pun intended.”
Unfortunately, there still remains a stigma around cannabis that requires prominent athletes and sports figures to remain somewhat guarded in how vocal they are about their own usage or support for cannabis in general.
All the panelists believed that cannabis and sports will continue to develop a symbiotic relationship, and Beals, Weedmaps’ CEO, even believes that teams will support fans using cannabis during games.
“Some team is going to say it’s OK for us to have a cannabis consumption lounge in the stadium,” Beals said.
When exactly such a deep integration becomes reality is a guessing game at this point, but cannabis’s blending into sport seems likely to follow the trajectory of legalized sports wagering. At first, it becomes legal in a given state, then it becomes acceptable by the “mainstream,” and then sports entities will figures out a way to make money off of it. At the end of the day, the color that matters most in both cannabis and sports is green — and if there’s enough of it to go around, sports will jump on board soon enough.