In just a few days, the sports world will see something unprecedented — a championship game between teams from cities with some of the most liberal cannabis laws in the Western Hemisphere.
While that doesn't overshadow the on-field subplots — Peyton Manning attempting to win a Super Bowl with a second franchise, Richard Sherman making his case for best cornerback of all time — what the Drudge Report called "The Pot Bowl" represents a watershed moment in our national discourse, specifically as it relates to medical marijuana, our cannabis laws in general and the future of law enforcement and incarceration.
The NFL has — like no other major sports league — faced an existential crisis regarding the health of players, especially once they retire from the game. Concussions, in particular, have factored into conditions that led Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher to kill themselves in spectacular fashion.
Against this backdrop, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked recently about allowing players to use pot in states where medical cannabis is legal. His response was typically cagey, but rooted in reality: "I don't know what's going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries," Goodell said, according to NBC Sports. "But we will continue to support the evolution of medicine."
The nascent medical marijuana industry has, for a variety of reasons, become more sophisticated in its understanding of weed's palliative effects. For NFL players, many of whom have had issues with painkiller addiction, it makes sense to opt for a substance that may be habit-forming but can't kill you or destroy your liver if you go one toke over the line.
And let's not kid ourselves: For medicine or recreation, weed is already widely used throughout the NFL. Last year, offensive tackle Lomas Brown, with 18 seasons under his helmet, estimated that "at least 50 percent" of NFL players smoke cannabis. If anything, that's a lowball estimate intended to mollify a mainstream media still choking on Reefer Madness tropes harvested from the fetid bowels of Harry Anslinger.
So there's no practical reason for Goodell to oppose the evolving status quo — and, given the popular revolt against weed laws, especially in the West, where private prison contracts and the legacy of slavery don't dominate public discourse, it makes sense for him to be officially agnostic about it. Even septuagenarian Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinks there are "some reasons for medical marijuana." And Barack Obama, Choom-Gang-member-turned-POTUS, told The New Yorker that it's "important" for legalization efforts "to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."
That's the future — which the NFL will have to embrace sooner or later.
Marijuana is a necessary palliative, especially useful for recovery from stress, concussion, cancer and the kinds of injuries NFL players deal with as a matter of course. It's also pretty much the opposite of a performance enhancer, and not prone to the kinds of addiction or side effects commonly associated with other, more legal painkillers. The NFL still considers it a banned substance, and still tests for it. The league's anti-drug vehemence falls somewhere between the NBA's relatively laissez-faire approach and the feverish efforts of MLB, racked as baseball has been by the scandals of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and now Alex Rodriguez.
That won't change overnight, but it will change. Medical — and even recreational — marijuana is the evolving political consensus. Prohibition hasn't worked — not in the sports world, not for society as a whole.
Kudos to Roger Goodell for not ignoring reality. And to Obama and Reid for inching forward. Yes, in all cases, it's political calculation writ large, but so it was with Civil Rights decades ago, and with same-sex marriage recently. No matter how we get there, doing so will be a triumph of liberty at the expense of hoary, outmoded political calculations.