Although the NFL would like you to think of it as a wholesome organization immune to the temptations of modern life, it's anything but. Professional footballers are some of America's best and beefiest sinners, and their long and rich history with sex, drugs and rock n' roll is nothing but a testament to that. But although players have been using and abusing both legal and illegal drugs since the pigskin first started getting tossed around, the NFL's drug policies remain some of the harshest and most contradictory in professional sports.
Even in the face of America's warm and welcoming embrace of legal weed, the league has stamped an authoritarian "hell no" on any substance you can't get at Walgreen's, something that's currently causing many players to speak out in contempt of its policies. A safer, more effective alternative to prescription drugs is what players they want, and they want it now.
But, to understand why the NFL refuses to back down on its puritanical drug policy and give its players the gift of weed, it's important to take a look back at the NFL's history with drug use.
The National Football league has been around for quite some time now, but it's real cultural impact came in 1966, when the AFL and NFL combined forces to become the juggernaut it is today. Teams from both leagues would be divided into two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) and duke it out for something they liked to call the “Super Bowl," a name which would later become hilariously ironic. Super Bowl I and II were quite the by-the-number affairs, with the Green Bay Packers win both matchups against The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders respectfully. All was peaceful, wholesome, good American fun. Nothing to seedy to see here.
Then — it happened. Enter “Broadway” Joe Namath.
Namath was the embodiment of the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lifestyle, something that was irregular for an athlete at that time. Whether he was claiming to have taken 300 women to pound town while at the University of Alabama (allegedly) or drunkenly telling reporter Suzy Kolber “I want to kiss you” on live TV, he was always up to something deliciously disreputable. Not surprisingly, this sealed his fame far more than his athletic performance did. Nevertheless, he and his New York Jets would beat the straight-edge, no-nonsense Johnny Unitas and his Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, just like he predicted, proving to the world that you can be on a hell of a bender and still succeed.
Broadway Joe was the first drug-loving footballer of his kind, but he would certainly not be the last.
The 1970s were when NFL personalities like Namarth's really began to flourish; when players really began to really explore what drugs and alcohol had to offer. The poster children for that decade’s debauchery were the Oakland Raiders. Led by hall of fame coach John Madden, the Silver and Black would terrorize teams on the gridiron by day, and make hotel staff quiver in fear at the thought of what was happening in their rooms by night.
The El Rancho Tropical hotel in Santa Rosa, CA was the site of Raiders training camp and the epicenter of their devilish antics. There, the alcohol flowed freely and the women made themselves available to the team. In fact, thanks to the gallivanting Raiders and the amount of money they dropped to keep themselves entertained, it was often said they were the sole reason the hotel, and the rest of the small town north of Oakland stayed afloat.
"There was no recession in Santa Rosa during Raider training camp," said Pete Banaszak, a veteran fullback who enjoyed much of the after-hours revelry for a dozen years, to Deadspin. "The owners of the establishment were overjoyed when the Raiders were in town. We were single-handedly boosting their economy. The hookers rejoiced."
"We couldn't wait to get to training camp, to get away from wives and girlfriends, play some football, have a few drinks at night,” Ken Stabler proclaims in Peter Richmond’s book Badasses, a chronicle of the Raiders’ decade of depravity. “… And do that for eight weeks."
Stabler also added that he and the team would conduct the virtuous practice of collecting panties from the various women who frequented training camp.
“It became an annual rite of training camp for many of the Raiders … I liked to tack my collection up on the walls,” he says. And, at a time where they were racking up as many points as they were panties, no one minded the lacy decor. The NFL, apparently, was happy to look away.
That is, until players' partying got out of hand.
After a while, the drugs started to affect players' performance and public image. Several men with bright futures very publicly fell from grace, and responsively, the NFL began to tighten their drug restrictions and take greater control of what their players put in their bodies.
Tony Mandarich was picked second overall in the 1989 draft and went home with the Green Bay Packers. Nicknamed “The Incredible Bulk,” he was purported to be the best offensive tackle to ever play the game. Thing is, this was the steroid era in the NFL, and at the height of this, Mandarich was literally more chemicals than man. As such, The Bulk told an Ohio State player that he was “Going to die today” after punching him in the face during the least competitive part of of the game — the coin toss.
That would not be the last of his ‘roid rage. After ditching training camp, Mandarich went on David Letterman challenge Mike Tyson, the then "baddest" man on the planet, to a fight. Needless to say, people perked up, bemused by his drug-fueled path of self-destruction.
Not only was it the steroids that caused this talented athlete fame and fortune; he was also mainlining pain-killers, up to six or seven a day, depending on how practice went. As pills became harder to find, Mandarich would replace one vice for another, mixing booze with his already steroid-riddled body.
"I spent four years in Green Bay and never had a sober day," Mandarich bragged in an ESPN interview. "Every day I was ever in Green Bay I was not sober."
That brings us to two more recent cases in history where NFL players could not keep their college lifestyle at the dorms: JaMarcus Russell and Johnny Manziel. Both were promising young players with unlimited potential until purple drank and booze became their downfall.
Russell was the No.1 overall pick for the Oakland Raiders back in 2007 after being named Most Valuable Player in the Sugar Bowl that same year. He was going to be the savior of the downtrodden franchise that had not seen a winning since getting blown out four years earlier in Super Bowl XXXVIII. But it wasn’t just his natural proclivity for drugs and partying that would do him in; it was also the pressure of the national attention. Russell was not used to having to deal with media like this on such a large scale, and the stress got to him; getting high was his way out.
Most players of the current are into the common vices such as women and booze, but not Russell. His drink of choice was a mixture of Sprite and liquid codeine, which he did not have a prescription for. Apparently, purple drank was all the rage in Oakland that year.
In 2010, Russell was arrested for possession for Lil’ Wayne’s favorite drink, and he was released on a $2,500 bond. Only time will tell if his attempted comeback to the NFL will be successful; God knows he could use the money.
Manziel, on the other hand, is a special case. The former Heisman trophy-winner was predicted to change the way the quarterback position was played with his small, yet able-bodied frame, rocket arm and the ability to see down the field like nobody else before.
… Too bad his ability to see college parties was even better.
The former Texas A&M superstar was out of the league after just two years because of his drinking problem and the lack of willpower to stay away from parties and alcohol; something that was clearly stated he should do in his Cleveland Browns contract. He was seen at multiple events where alcohol was the guest of honor, wearing disguises to hide from media as he swayed about Vegas, and was even seen at Coachella, looking like a strung-out hippy. At one point, his drug and alcohol abuse got so bad that even former boozehound Ryan Leaf had to come to his aid. When one of the biggest busts in NFL history is trying to help you, you have a problem.
However, while the NFL’s history with booze, steroids, and slutting it up has characterized the majority of players’ bad behavior, the spotlight has more recently been stolen by marijuana. Weed legalization in states like Colorado and Oregon has raised questions over whether players should be allowed to use it or not; after all, not only is it medicinally beneficial for a wide range of football-inducecd health problems like chronic pain, but it’s also been shown to curve cravings for other football-unfriendly hobbies like alcohol and tobacco. CBDs (the non-psychoactive component of weed) in particular are being looked at by the NFL for their ability to help treat chronic pain and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that stems from multiple blows to the head and leads to depression, anxiety and a laundry list of other mental disorders.
Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer has been pushing the NFL to at least give it a look-see as an option for head trauma. Plummer said in a recent interview that he had been taking CBDs for a little over a year now and was contemplating returning to the Broncos in place of Peyton Manning. We’re sure he was at least a little high when he thought about that, but nevertheless, Jake “The Snake” has said he owes his good health to CBD and will continue to fight the good fight for its allowance by the NFL. Dozens of other former players have admitted to using weed as a painkiller, with some, even admitting to playing stoned on game day.
Yet while players are using weed left and right, the NFL continues to be unusually harsh on current players who use it. In recent weeks, Bills linemen Marcell Dareus and Seantrel Henderson were each suspended four games for using marijuana. And The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott caused a ridiculous drama simply by walking into a legal weed-friendly establishment. Meanwhile, the league has no problem pumping players full of pharmaceutical painkillers and prescription drugs that leave them gouged by adverse side effects.
Given the personal tragedies and lawsuits that have stemmed from team doctors over-prescribing opioids, it seems counterintuitive that the NFL continues to take such a puritanical, authoritarian anti-marijuana stance while doctors simultaneously pump out prescriptions for powerful and addictive painkillers.
"The medicine being pumped into these guys is just killing people," Nate Jackson of the Denver Broncos told Rolling Stone, explaining how marijuana could be a much safer, healthier option for players to deal with medical problems than prescription drugs. "NFL owners think marijuana is something players do to get around the system, not knowing that it's actually allowing them to be in the system. It's allowing them to deal with the rigors of the game."
Things get even weirder when you consider that, despite America's growing acceptance of legal weed, the NFL often doles out harsher punishments for marijuana infractions than it does for domestic abuse. Ray Rice was infamously suspended for only two games for the brutal attack of his fiancee, and Jonathan Dwyer was only kicked out of three games for a 2015 domestic violence charge. Meanwhile, players like Sheldon Richardson are receiving outrageous four-game suspensions for the miniscule offense of testing positive for THC.
The fact that the NFL considers using safe, non-addictive, plant-based medicine as bad as beating your spouse is a pretty great indication of how out-of-touch their drug policy is. But, it also considers players who burn out on drugs a huge liability, something they've got a wealth of experience with. And as of right now, marijuana is still federally illegal, so … it's a drug. And therefore a no-no. And until the DEA reconsiders its scheduling and it's federally illegal, that mentality is here to stay.
In the meantime, purple drank, anyone?