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By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan

Thursday, March 15, 2012.

Some days the sports media seems obsessed with drug use by athletes.  Whether recreational drugs or performance enhancing drugs, sports pages are often dedicated to lamenting and bemoaning the dialects between society and sports as it relates to drugs.

Stepping into a culture that obsesses over drug use amongst athletes, Courtland Milloy highlights a recent study - Cannabis in Sport: Anti-Doping Perspective”– from Marilyn Huestis, Irene Mazzoni, and Oliver Rabin.  In spite widespread media condemnation of athletes accused of smoking marijuana and the drug testing policies of several professional sports league, Milloy concludes that there may be good reason for players to smoke marijuana.  “Whenever a professional athlete is suspended for smoking marijuana. . . a question usually arises: Why would they risk so much for so little? Turns out, the benefits of taking a few puffs aren’t so little,” he writes in “For pro athletes, the risks of smoking pot are high — but so are the benefits.”  He then quotes the authors, who offered a lengthy discussion of the issues at hand as they relate to sports:

That when smoked in small amounts by athletes,  “cannabis can decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension. Furthermore, cannabinoids play a major role in the extinction of fear memories by interfering with learned aversive behaviors. Athletes who experienced traumatic events in their career could benefit from such an effect. . . . . Athletes under the influence of cannabis indicate that their thoughts flow more easily and their decision making and creativity is enhanced.  Health professionals have encountered athletes including gymnasts, divers, football players and basketball players who claim smoking cannabis before play helps them focus better.

The conclusions should be of little surprise given the widespread research on the medicinal properties of cannabis.  Likewise, the story of Rickey Williams, who reportedly smoked marijuana to treat his social anxiety, which is debilitating to all but particularly difficult for public figures, is testament to the conclusions here. 

Yet, its importance rests with its effort to challenge the narrative that criminalizes today’s athletes.   This study and the column itself disrupts the “the fusion of black athletes, rappers, and criminals into a single menacing figure who disgusts and offends many blacks as well as whites,” (Hoberman 1997, p. xix).  By imagining potential marijuana use as a response to the physical and mental strains associated with professional sports as well as a “performance enhancing drug,” Milloy disrupts the pathological/criminal/race-based narratives that guide the convergence of the front and back pages.      

Yet, the article leaves a sour taste in my mouth.  Trying to connect with decriminalization efforts, Milloy misses an opportunity to highlight the ways in which the war on drugs/the criminalization of marijuana has been a war on communities of color. In Washington D.C., African Americans are 8 times more likely to be arrested than whites.  In California, 62% of arrests for marijuana are against people of color, notwithstanding lower levels of usage.  In New York City, 1 in 7 arrests are for marijuana possession with the burden of the war on drugs directed at youth of color.  According to a recent report:

Between 1997 and 2007, police arrested and jailed about 205,000 blacks, 122,000 Latinos and 59,000 whites for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Blacks accounted for about 52 percent of the arrests, though they represented only 26 percent of the city’s population over that time span. Latinos accounted for 31 percent of the arrests but 27 percent of the population. Whites represented only 15 percent of those arrested, despite comprising 35 percent of the population.

Government surveys of high school seniors and young adults 18 to 25 consistently show that young whites use marijuana more often than young blacks and Latinos. The arrests also are heavily skewed by gender. About 91 percent of people arrested were male.

Given the criminalization of marijuana usage within black and Latino communities, it should be of little surprise that marijuana use by professional basketball and football players elicits media outrage and league intervention.  The fear, the outrage, and the criminalization of marijuana in certain sports are merely an extension of the criminalization, profiling, and inequality of the war on drugs throughout society. 

The racially-based selective enforcement of drug laws in society at large extends into the sports world.  The ways that race, sport, and drug intersect is on full display for a 2003 article in The New York Daily News:

Most pro athletes flee from anything that smacks of controversy, but [Bob] Burnquist, 26, and O'Brien, 24, feel compelled to stand up for marijuana. Legalize it, they say - marijuana can be used for fuel, for medicine, even for food. Oh yeah, they add, it also makes people feel good. “There is so much we can do with it,” Burnquist says.

It's hard to imagine NBA and NFL stars publicly embracing marijuana. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has tried to coax pro athletes to speak out for pot legalization, but the only player who has stepped forward is former Dallas Cowboy All-Pro center Mark Stepnoski, now the president of NORML's Texas chapter.

Skateboarders and other extreme or action sports athletes, including those in motocross, snowboarding and surfing, don't feel so inhibited. O'Brien even appeared on the cover of High Times magazine last year, holding a big, fat bud. “I believe it's God's gift to us,” says O'Brien, who won't say if she actually smokes pot. Burnquist says he's an occasional toker.

We smoke all the time,” says motocross rider Beau Manley. “It's part of what we do – ride and get stoned with our bros.”

This article is indicative of the ways in which whiteness insulates, rationalizes, and decriminalizes white use of marijuana.  Whereas drugs are seen as a natural extension of the culture of extreme sports, and therefore harmless, the intrusion of drug use within football and basketball is seen as harmful, evidence of the criminal grips on its sporting culture.  While Milloy’s column and presumably the research itself reflects on drug usage by athletes across a myriad of sports, both the public concern and the overall policing within the United States has been reserved for those sports overwhelming played by African Americans.  As with the war on drugs, the war on marijuana use by athletes has been a war on African American athletes.  To fail to acknowledge this larger context, and to ignore the fact that marijuana use amongst whites, athletes or not, is already accepted, represents a missed opportunity.


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.

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