The regular season of the NFL kicks off Thursday night in the Mile High City, as the Super Bowl-defending Baltimore Ravens visit the Denver Broncos. The game takes place in a state where it has recently become legal to smoke marijuana.
In November 2012, Colorado voters passed a ballot initiative, Amendment 64, which legalized the personal, recreational use of cannabis. Much of the discourse around the push for pot, moreover, concerned its relative safety in light of alcohol.
But that won't persuade NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to soften his stance on players' use of the plant.
The league has chosen instead to continue addressing alcohol consumption by NFL players, even helping them hitch a ride home after a night out.
As Ken Belson of the New York Times reported Wednesday, the NFL players' union has linked with Uber, a technology firm with a revamped mobile app that will help players arrive home safe after a night of drinking. The app would pinpoint a player's location with GPS and dispatch a taxi or car service to scoop them up.
But it gets better, according to Belson, "Players will be offered $200 in credits as an inducement to use the service, which begins next week."
It is difficult to deny benefits of the app, especially if one observes the following statistics, as noted by Belson:
Since 2006, about 70 percent of the players arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated were apprehended in the metropolitan area where they were based, according to union figures. Most instances of driving while intoxicated involved players who were in the league a year or two, and occurred on Fridays and Saturdays from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Since 2006, players paid nearly $2.4 million in fines and lost almost $2.9 million in salary in cases of impaired driving. Some players lost far more.
The NFL recently caused some controversy—notably with Broncos fans—when they plastered two gigantic banners on the outside of Sports Authority Field, one for beloved Peyton Manning and one for the enemy, Joe Flacco, to advertise Thursday night's opener. To make matters worse, Denver residents couldn't walk certain downtown streets without running into numerous smaller mug shots of Flacco.
But on Wednesday, another contentious banner appeared high on a billboard near the stadium. The message, "Stop driving players to drink! A safer choice is now legal (here)," was issued by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in an attempt to raise public awareness.
The MPP strongly advocate pot as a safer substance than alcohol, but claim that Goodell has created a top-down stigma against marijuana and a resultant soft stance around alcohol. The project believe that players' use of cannabis is unfairly treated as criminal and dangerous by the commissioner.
David Knowles of the Daily News reported Wednesday on the politics surrounding the billboard. The MPP's director of communications, Mason Tvert, said in a statement:
For years, the NFL has been punishing players for using marijuana despite the fact that it is far less harmful than alcohol, a substance widely embraced by the league. The league would never punish a player simply for having a couple beers, so why does it penalize them for using a substance that is less toxic, less addictive, and less likely to contribute to violence.
The NFL's harsh marijuana penalties do nothing to promote the health and safety of the players. If anything, they put players in danger by steering them toward using alcohol and away from making the safer choice to use marijuana instead. We hope Commissioner Goodell will explain why the NFL is willing to promote the use of alcohol among its players and fans, but unwilling to recognize that a safer alternative is now legal here.
It is no secret that alcohol abuse is, indeed, rampant in the NFL, and the league is not attempting to cover up its latest method of avoiding drunk driving. In fact, the NFL is proud of its important business with Uber—and it should be since driving-while-intoxicated is a national epidemic.
Belson agrees, "The problem of players driving under the influence has long bedeviled the NFL and its 32 teams, costing players millions of dollars in fines and in one case last season, a player’s life."
But if the NFL focuses on assisting players to return home from drinking, does that imply, as the MPP billboard states, that it is "driving players to drink?"
Or can the two be seen as mutually exclusive—that the app is simply the best-case scenario for the NFL to deal with an immediate safety issue that related to last year's awful tragedy?
Whatever the opinion may be, the MPP is certainly not a one-stop shop for advocacy of marijuana over alcohol. The Project has made its voice heard in other sports as well. David Knowles explains that their messages have not just stirred controversy, but have also created backlash:
The Marijuana Policy Project has taken to using billboards and signage at sporting and community events to push its message that pot is safer than alcohol. In July, a pro-marijuana ad produced by the group that was slated to coincide with NASCAR's Brickyard 400 was pulled from a Jumbotron after officials received complaints from the Drug Free America Foundation. Another billboard promoting marijuana as a safer choice than alcohol was vandalized at the start of Oregon's Beer and Wine Festival.
Former Dolphins teammate, linebacker Channing Crowder, says that Williams often smoked during the evenings prior to games.
Remember that Buffalo game, the 200-yard game? Smoked the night before. Talk to Ricky. He was doing it, that’s what he did. Ricky has social anxiety and he smoked weed. Ricky’s marijuana didn’t affect the team until he got caught smoking... Him smoking weed, sitting at his house smoking weed, didn’t affect anybody but Ricky. He got high and then he sobered up and then he went to practice the next day.
The former Dolphins running back's pot-smoking is no mystery of course. It has been admitted, discussed and illuminated in an intimate ESPN 30 for 30, "Run Ricky Run."
Williams is a sympathetic character in the film, one who escaped the stresses of professional football, media and judgement to lead a more solitary—and sedentary—lifestyle.
We also know that he smokes to cope with social anxiety disorder, and we are aware of his premature retirement in 2004 following a suspension for testing positive for marijuana.
No, it is not as though video has now surfaced of Ricky emerging from the tunnel at Sun Life Stadium with clouds of smoke billowing out of helmet. But the negativity that will surround this news will only further damage the motives of a group like the MPP.
In any case, the NFL is not planning to change its mind any time soon.
As league spokesman Greg Aiello told the Daily News, "The NFL's policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades," and that "Marijuana remains prohibited under the NFL substance abuse program."
With Thursday here, we can at least be pleased with the start of another NFL season. It kicks off on the same field where Joe Flacco heaved a miracle 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime and ultimately end Denver's postseason dreams.
While political fireworks are being set off outside the stadium and in Denver's city center, Thursday night should be solely about the football on the field.