Last month, in the two-week dead zone between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, the National Football League tried to buy itself some positive press coverage using a tried-and-true public relations strategy: weed.
For many years the most punitive place in pro sports for cannabis users — with even qualified medical-marijuana patients risking their livelihoods and their careers — in 2020, the league became (technically at least) more permissive than hands-off Major League Baseball, the NFL announced it would fund research examining just how beneficial weed would be for its players.
The NFL was doling out a total of $1 million to two research teams investigating cannabis’s value as a pain-management tool and as neuroprotectant for “elite football players” who suffered concussions, the league announced.
That might have been good for some positive earned media, had former NFL head coach Brian Flores not filed a lawsuit later that same day against the league and several teams, alleging systemic racial discrimination against Black coaches.
But in the analysis of Ricky Williams, in the cannabis research announcement, the league revealed its long-term cannabis strategy—and how marijuana has always been a tool for the league to burnish its image with the public and with players.
Cynical from the start, the league’s vendetta against cannabis is gone. But in its place is something that, if still cynical, is at least less damaging, the former player turned cannabis entrepreneur and activist said in a recent interview.
“The fact that the NFL is on the positive side of the cannabis conversation is huge. We’re moving in the right direction,” Williams said. “I think the bigger win is the goodwill that this will create with the players.”
“One of the biggest issues for the players is that they feel owners don’t care about us,” he added. “In my opinion, what’s major is that guys are going to feel, ‘Okay, they’re actually listening to us.”
Williams’s career arc reflects the league’s attitude towards weed. A top draft pick after winning the Heisman Trophy in 1998 as the most outstanding player in college football, Williams infamously retired from football in 2004 for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy after a series of failed marijuana tests.
After studying yoga and traveling, he returned the following year, only to miss the 2006 season after another substance-abuse policy violation, developing a negative reputation and absorbing undeserved opprobrium—all this, because the league was trying to project a certain image, Williams said.
“I had a talk with [former head coach and executive] Bill Parcells about this,” Williams said of the league’s longstanding draconian attitude towards cannabis.
“He explained that it was basically for the league’s reputation,” he said. “You know: in the 1980s there was a big DARE program and anti-drug sentiment in our country. It was really about protecting the image of the league.”
The “Just Say No” 1980s also coincided with a highly publicized drug problem around the league—but with cocaine, with several players suffering highly public struggles before the league started urine testing in the mid-1980s.
Notably, cocaine is water-soluble and flushes out of the body in days compared to weeks for fat-soluble cannabis metabolites. So the league’s substance-abuse policy didn’t do much for player safety, but it did make the league look decisive and no-nonsense.
“When I learned that, it became obvious that things are not going to change until the NFL is confident fans are okay with players using cannabis,” Williams said.
This is also why, back when Williams had his drawn-out suspension struggles with the league in the mid-2000s, there weren’t any players or player union reps willing to stand up and support him. Only a tiny handful of states had medical marijuana laws. The first legalization laws wouldn’t pass until 2012. Then the walls tumbled down.
A decade later, weed is more popular than the NFL itself—or at least less loathed. Thirty-three percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of the NFL, according to a Harris poll conducted last fall. Only 9 percent of Americans think cannabis should be illegal, as per Gallup.
The NFL was slow to follow. But now, with anywhere between half and 89 percent of NFL players cannabis users themselves, the NFL can use its marijuana policy to appeal to players—who are well aware of the league’s lingering structural problems, like the racial disparities in front offices, coaching staffs , and ownership suites highlighted by the Flores suit.
The research program, then, “will gain a lot of goodwill with the players for sure,” Williams said. It will also give the NFL cover to follow public opinion and drop cannabis from its list of banned substances in due course—after it’s studied, to finally “reveal” what most everyone already knows.
“In my opinion they’re doing this research to justify removing cannabis from the banned list. They’re ticking the boxes,” he said. “Think about it: They suspended so many players, they ruined people’s lives over this. It’s hard for them to just drop it and say, ‘Oh, we made a mistake.’ They have to say, ‘Okay, we did our research.’”
“That’s that game,” he said. “But I get it. Whatever it takes.”
Like other former and current athletes who found cannabis consistent with a healthy physical lifestyle, Williams is a cannabis entrepreneur now, with a lifestyle brand and a line of cannabis products called Highsman.
Ahead of the Super Bowl, Highsman collaborated with Jeeter, a leading pre-roll company, on a limited-edition strain and merchandise. Proceeds went to Athletes for CARE, a nonprofit advocating for athletes’ physical and mental well-being.
You would not have heard about this watching the big game. Before the NFL allows cannabis companies to purchase Super Bowl ad time the same way airtime is gobbled up by companies promoting cryptocurrency and online gambling — two other recent American passions, but, unlike cannabis, both of them federally legal — Congress will have to legalize marijuana federal first.
“Two years at the most,” Williams predicted. Which means if the NFL-funded studies yield the right results quickly enough, the league may find itself in the previously inconceivable position of adopting a pro-cannabis stance before the federal government. That would look pretty good.