Not long ago, whenever professional athletes dabbled with marijuana, it was bad news: multigame suspensions, ruined careers, endless stoner jokes. Not anymore. Just take a look at this week’s Sports Illustrated, which dedicated its cover story to former NFL running back Ricky Williams’ relationship with cannabis. Williams’ 11 NFL seasons were marked by repeated suspensions for positive marijuana tests, hand-wringing, and forced contrition; now the big story is that Williams has become an outspoken marijuana advocate and co-founder of the world’s first cannabis-friendly gym, Power Plant Fitness and Wellness.
Williams is far from the only big-name sports superstar, former or current, coming out of the cannabis closet. That’s despite the fact that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which prohibits not just performance-enhancing drugs, but any substance it considers a health risk or violation of the spirit of sport, still bans marijuana. All major U.S. pro sports leagues still punish players for marijuana use (with the notable exception of the NHL, which doesn’t include cannabis on its list of banned substances.) And never mind that the jury is still out on whether marijuana helps or hurts athletic performance and recovery. (What is clear is that lots of players use pot to ease injuries, and in some ways that could be safer than the potentially addictive painkillers they’ve long been prescribed.)
It’s hard to miss the hypocrisy of pro sport leagues’ stance on cannabis when the major leagues accept billions in advertising and sponsorship deals from the alcohol industry. (Bud Light alone has a $1.4 billion six-year deal with the NFL.) This attitude is also out of step with how most Americans feel about the issue. Nearly 75 percent think pot is less harmful than booze, and a record-high 61 percent say it should be legal.
While the suits in the front offices and the scientific community might be dragging their heels on shifting marijuana’s place in the world of sports, athletes themselves are taking the ball and running with it. Here, the top 18 athletes known for their connections to marijuana — in a good way.
For years, the tailback was criticized and lampooned for his seeming inability to keep off weed while playing for the Miami Dolphins. Now the former two-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner has embraced that legacy, advocating for marijuana legalization, scoring a sponsorship with the cannabis start-up Weedmaps and partnering with the founder of 420 Games (a series of marijuana-themed events featuring live music, athletic competitions, and a 4.2-mile footrace) on the gym Power Plant Fitness. For Williams, it’s all about changing the nature of the game. “The NFL a business that depends on viewership, when their viewers speak, the NFL will follow,” he says.
Like Williams, former NBA All-Star (and Survivor contestant) Cliff “Uncle Cliffy” Robinson aims to flip the script on the NBA suspensions he received for violating the league’s cannabis policy. He recently attended a marijuana industry investment forum in Portland where he pitched Uncle Spliffy, a cannabis sports brand slated to feature athletic-focused marijuana products, themed apparel, and even a monthly membership club. Sound intriguing? If you have a spare $3 million, Uncle Cliffy’s ready to talk.
It’s one thing to advocate for marijuana once you’ve retired from pro sports. It’s quite another to do so while you’re still playing. That’s what Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe did earlier this year, when he publicly castigated the NFL for not allowing players to use medical marijuana. At the same time, Monroe donated $80,000 to When the Bright Lights Fade, a campaign that funds research on cannabis’s potential for athletes. The moves might have come at a price: In June, the Ravens cut Monroe loose. And the fact that his departure announcement on the team’s website noted Monroe’s marijuana activism left some people wondering whether his politics played into the decision. Monroe recently announced that he’s retiring from the sport, citing injuries and a reluctance to continue taking pills to stay in the game. He plans to continue his advocacy for medical marijuana for players. The move won’t silence Monroe’s advocacy though, especially because another current player, Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, recently joined his cause. As Monroe noted in a statement after being released by the Ravens, “I will never stop pushing for the League to accept medical cannabis as a viable option for pain management.”
Jake Plummer was so struck by how well medical marijuana high in cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabis ingredient, eased the pain of his 10 years as an NFL quarterback that he’s become a spokesperson for it. He, alongside other former players such as Tatum Bell and Nate Jackson, recently starred in a public service announcement promoting the When the Bright Lights Fade fundraising campaign. As Plummer notes in the video, “Your mental and physical wellbeing is much more important than any claim to being a great quarterback, or a great teammate, or taking the team on a drive.”
Diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) thanks to the 100-plus concussions he received during the 10 years he played as an NFL offensive lineman, Kyle Turley struggled with pharmaceutical addiction, violent thoughts, and suicidal tendencies — until he started taking medical marijuana. “It saved my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today, I would not have my family, my kids, my house, everything I have right now, if not for cannabis.” To help save other lives, Turley founded the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition to use his story and those of other players to advance the idea of marijuana as a valid medicine for neurological conditions and other athletic injuries. “This plant has to be set free,” he says. “We have people committing suicide in football and other sports. How far do we have to go?”
While an increasing number of NFL players are pushing for marijuana reform these days, the former Denver Broncos tight end was among the first, penning a 2014 New York Times op-ed calling for the NFL to update its cannabis policy to reflect the fact that he and many of his teammates were already medicating with marijuana. “Pain is constant in the game,” he said in an interview that year. “For some people, pain management is a necessary occurrence, and opioids are passed out for every injury. I think marijuana is a healthier alternative. I just think there has to be a more compassionate approach to these athletes and what they’re doing to their bodies.” To advocate for such an approach, Jackson is working with the When the Bright Lights Fade campaign.
When someone as legendary as two-time Super Bowl Champion Jim McMahon comes out in support of marijuana, you know something big is happening. The former Chicago Bears quarterback struggles with dementia, depression, memory loss, speech problems, and other ailments because of multiple gridiron concussions. What does the one-time “punky QB” turn to for help? Cannabis, according to McMahon in a Chicago Tribune interview. “This medical marijuana has been a godsend,” he said. “It relieves me of the pain — or thinking about it, anyway.”
Canadian Ross Rebagliati won gold in snowboarding at the 1998 Winter Olympics, but that honor didn’t last long. When a blood test he’d taken came back positive for marijuana, he was disqualified. He eventually won back his medal when his disqualification was overturned because marijuana wasn’t on the official Olympics list of banned substances. Plus, he has another gold: Ross’ Gold, a Canadian medical cannabis company.
Call MMA fighter Nick Diaz a marijuana martyr. When the onetime Strikeforce Welterweight Champion, who’s never been shy about his fondness for cannabis, tested positive for marijuana last year at UFC 183, the Nevada Athletic Commission slapped him with a five-year suspension. After widespread public outcry (triggered in part by the fact that Diaz’s UFC opponent Anderson Silva was only suspended for one year for a positive steroid test), NAC reduced Diaz’s suspension to 18 months. Diaz is eligible to return to the UFC next month, but in the meantime he hasn’t stopped advocating for his favorite pastime (besides punching dudes in the face). As he told High Times in a February interview, “If I’m at home and I’m training — doing my same things every day — then I’m definitely going to want to use cannabis. It’s gonna help.”
It’s not known whether Ronda Rousey partakes in smoking marijuana herself, but there’s no question about her opinion on cannabis bans in the UFC. Immediately after Nick Daiz’s suspension last year, she weighed in on the matter at a press conference, noting, “I’m sorry, but it’s so not right for him to be suspended five years for marijuana. I’m against testing for weed at all. It’s not a performance enhancing drug. And it has nothing to do with competition. It’s only tested for political reasons.” Ouch.
Diaz and Rousey aren’t the only MMA fighters speaking out about marijuana. Former UFC heavyweight fighter Kyle Kingsbury has lately been championing the drug, saying it helps him sleep and reduces muscle pain. It also might help him financially; he’s sponsored by 420 Games.
Best known for winning the 2006 Tour de France, but then losing his title thanks to a failed test for synthetic testosterone, Floyd Landis now hopes to make a name for himself by embracing another drug. He’s launching Floyd’s of Leadville, a Colorado-based marijuana business focused on high altitude-grown cannabis, cultivated among the rolling hills he once used for training.
Think marijuana users are lazy? Think again. Colorado pro ultramarathoner Avery Collins uses cannabis during many of his 100- to 200-mile training runs. “If you can find the right level, [marijuana] takes the stress out of running,” the 22-year-old told the Wall Street Journal last year. “And it’s a post-race, post-run remedy.” While he doesn’t partake during official events — ultramarathons follow WADA guidelines — marijuana is still a part of every race he runs. Sponsorship logos from cannabis companies such as Mary’s Medicinals and Roll-Uh-Bowl grace his jersey.
After Collins, celebrated freestyle skier Tanner Hall is reportedly the second current pro athlete to partner with a cannabis company. Working with Black Rock Originals, Hall has unveiled a line of SKIBOSS marijuana accessories, including rolling papers, lighters, and credit card-sized marijuana grinders. Hall isn’t just a token spokesperson; he’s also a user. As he told the New Yorker, “I’ve got a pretty fast brain: it goes a million miles an hour, and the chron calms it down.”
Former NHL player Riley Cote turned to medical marijuana to find relief from the years of bruising as an enforcer for the Philadelphia Flyers. He also says cannabis helps his sister manage her multiple sclerosis. No wonder, then, that Cote has become an active cannabis activist, launching the Hemp Heals Foundation to spread the word about the beneficial properties of hemp, a non-psychoactive version of cannabis.
Thanks to his sometimes shaggy appearance during his storied NBA career in the 1970s and ’80s, plus his love of all things Grateful Dead, lots of folks speculate that Bill Walton enjoys consuming cannabis. Walton has kept mum on the matter, but while working as a commentator for an NCAA basketball game in January, Walton wasn’t shy about airing his opinions about legalized marijuana. “This whole war on drugs has been an absolute failure across the board,” he said. “Somebody’s got to step forward, and we’re looking for Obama to step up and say, ‘Why are we punishing people for things that are legal? Why are people languishing in jail for things that are legal?’ ” Jerry would be proud.
Walton and Robinson aren’t the only former NBA superstar opening up about marijuana. In March, Jay Williams, former Chicago Bulls point guard, told FoxBusiness.com that he thinks 75 to 80 percent of NBA players use cannabis, drug tests be damned. And according to Williams, it’s time for the NBA to get with the program. “It’s easy for doctors to prescribe you Oxycontin, and look, I was addicted to it for five-plus years, so I know,” he said. “But when you say ‘marijuana,’ you get a reaction: ‘Ahhh, it’s a gateway drug.’ It’s something that the whole world is becoming more progressive with. So it’s about time some of these entities do as well.”
Rob Van Dam
Pro wrestling might be fake, but the training required to be a king in the ring certainly isn’t. Longtime ECW and WWE superstar Rob Van Dam credits marijuana with being a key part of his athletic prep work. “If I want to relax and just chill out, consuming cannabis can help with that,” he told the Washington Post earlier this year. “If I want to be active, if I’m going to go work out or have a match, then it can help with that, too.” Van Dam, who was briefly suspended from the WWE because of a 2006 marijuana arrest, also said cannabis helped him keep the right frame of mind for his matches: “In front of millions of people that paid to see you at your best, who expect you to be in action-figure shape and condition on that particular night for that moment, you’ve got to deliver.”