Cannabis culture in sports has an old-school stigma. You'll hear vague talk of scientific research here, news of a failed drug test or arrest there. But, to be blunt, real talk is hard to come by.
So here's a reality check: Professional athletes smoke weed. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of them do, according to new player estimates. Some even smoke before games.
"All of my best games, I was medicated," says Matt Barnes, who won the NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors last year and spent 14 seasons in the NBA. "It wasn't every single game but, in 15 years, it was a lot."
"I smoked two blunts before every game," says former Dallas Cowboy Shaun Smith, who played nine seasons in the NFL.
With marijuana now legalized for recreational use in nine states and counting, plus 29 states for medicinal purposes, the American conversation is changing rapidly. Cannabis remains a banned substance in the NBA, NFL and MLB, but athletes are increasingly speaking out, advocating for its legalization in the major professional leagues.
Enter B/R x 4/20, a project that pulls back the curtain by letting "closet smokers" tell their stories in public. A dozen former NBA and NFL players told Bleacher Report—on the record, on camera—that they support cannabis in pro sports. Eight did so while smoking weed.
The time has arrived for an honest dialogue—one that neither endorses nor condemns marijuana in sports. Just a genuine discussion that helps fans understand why and how often it's being used, behind the scenes. (Spoiler alert: a lot.)
That conversation starts right here, right now:
Of the 12 retired athletes B/R interviewed over a two-month span, seven shared that they used cannabis during their careers, citing pain management, anxiety, insomnia—and that they were 20-somethings who enjoyed smoking weed.
"I feel like this is the most dynamic plant on earth because it does so many things," says Al Harrington, who played 16 seasons in the NBA and now has his own line of cannabis-related products.
Two players—Barnes and Smith—revealed to B/R that they played in the NBA and NFL while high:
Bo Scaife, who spent six seasons in the NFL, thinks about 80 percent of the league smokes marijuana. Martellus Bennett, who retired from the NFL in March after 10 seasons, estimated on B/R's Simms & Lefkoe Podcast earlier this month that "about 89 percent" of the league smokes marijuana.
"There's medical marijuana," Bennett said. "So it's like, there's times of the year where your body just hurts so bad that you don't want to just be popping pills all the time. … It ruins your liver. There's a lot of these anti-inflammatories that you take for so long that, like, it starts to eat at your liver or kidneys and things like that. And a human made that. God made weed."
Kenyon Martin, who played 15 seasons in the NBA, estimates 85 percent of the league smoked during his career. "It was a lot. It was people who you wouldn't think," he told B/R at a roundtable discussion in February:
The Truth About Testing, Rule Changes and 'Breaking the Stigma'
Beginning April 20, of all days, through August 9, NFL players are subject to a random drug test for marijuana and other drugs banned on the league's substances-of-abuse policy. If a player passes, he won't be tested again until the following season.
After a first failed test, a player enters an intervention program, in which he can be tested, in certain situations, up to 10 times per month. Penalties for failing multiple drug tests range from fines worth 11.76, 17.6 or 23.5 percent of an annual salary (two, three or four game checks); to suspensions without pay that can last four, six or 10 games; to a one-year ban from the league.
Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory was suspended for the entire 2017 season, reportedly failing his seventh drug test for marijuana. Gregory, who has played just 14 games in two seasons, has yet to be reinstated. Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant and Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon have each been banned from the NFL for at least one season. Bryant's agent acknowledged to USA Today that Bryant "has a problem with marijuana"; Gordon, when asked last year by GQ how many games he had something in his system, said "probably every game of my career."
"That's why I think things like this is what's important, because it's breaking the stigma," former NFL offensive lineman John Moffitt says of B/R x 4/20. "It's really just a stigma in power. I mean, they could just be like, 'Let's get rid of that one test.' But really most guys can clean it up for that amount of time and still have it during the season. I think they know that."
When asked at a roundtable discussion in California last month what he would tell NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about cannabis in sports, former NFL left tackle and Super Bowl champion Ryan Clady said: "I feel like you guys already know there's a ton of players who smoke marijuana. We only get tested once a year. Why have that one once-a-year test when it's so beneficial to all the players who use it?"
NFL executives, who often have the final say on personnel decisions, aren't subjected to drug testing, according to two NFL sources.
"Shoot, the coaches do it," says Smith, the former Cowboy. "Personnel, people upstairs do it. Quarterbacks that do it. Captains, your leaders of the team, smoke as much as I do—might even smoke more than me."
The NFL did not make Goodell available for comment. His spokesman, Brian McCarthy, did not respond to a detailed list of questions, including why NFL executives and personnel did not have consistent drug testing with players. In a statement to B/R, McCarthy said in part, "The NFL and NFL Players Association have comprehensive programs and policies addressing both PEDs as well as illegal drugs and substances of abuse."
The NBA drug-tests its players six times per season, the most among the four major professional sports leagues, per a policy that began in 2015. A positive test results in a mandatory entry in the league's marijuana program, while a second positive test means a $25,000 fine. If a player tests positive a third time, it triggers a five-game suspension. Each violation thereafter increases the suspension by five games.
"It's a stereotype drug," says Barnes. "It's a 'black athlete' stereotype drug. We are the only league that they test four times random for weed. Like, why? You're not testing for alcohol. You're not testing for, I mean, these pills that are destroying our insides that our trainers are giving us. You know what I mean? You're testing for weed because you know we like to do it."
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver—when asked for comment on B/R x 4/20 regarding cannabis policy in the NBA, WNBA and developmental G League—left the door open to change pending further research:
In a statement to B/R, the NBA Players Association said marijuana "is a topic that is important to our players and we will continue to gather information and explore its effects on professional athletes."
The State of Pain, Speaking Out and Playing On
Just last year, the NFL offered to work in tandem with the NFL Players Association to examine the science behind marijuana as a pain-management tool for players. McCarthy, the NFL spokesman, said the league relies on independent medical advisors, leaving the door open in his statement to B/R:
"This is an area of research we are looking to develop further, along with the NFLPA," McCarthy continued, "to determine whether those substances could be used as an effective and safe pain-management tool for players. Currently, however, our advisors have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively bargained policy and approach related to marijuana and cannabinoids."
Despite the NFL's complacency, its players association has remained open to medical marijuana as an alternative and established an exploratory pain-management committee involving players, physicians and researchers over the last two offseasons. In a statement to B/R, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said he was "holding team medical personnel to higher levels of accountability and continuing to explore treatments."
"The only way to completely adhere to our duty," the NFL union chief told B/R, "is to fully understand the causes, solutions and all potential treatments (including alternative treatments like medical marijuana) and to advocate for appropriate therapeutic use exemptions for physician-approved and scientifically verified treatments."
There remain, of course, negative effects to smoking weed. In 2014, researchers from Northwestern, Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital released a study that linked how casual marijuana use can create different degrees of brain abnormalities in young adults, which increased with the more joints they smoked for recreational purposes. "This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn't associated with bad consequences," Northwestern professor of psychiatry Hans Breiter said at the time.
When contacted on Wednesday to review estimates and interviews from B/R x 4/20, Breiter told B/R he has since done a "180-degree pivot."
Marijuana can still produce paranoia and potentially psychotic-type thinking as a result of genetic predisposition, Breiter noted. But he pointed to nearly 200 psychoactive compounds in cannabis that he said, with further research, could prove beneficial for pain management and recovery.
"We need to get our heads out of our asses here and start studying," Breiter told B/R.
Breiter said his opinion changed as he examined the cost-benefit analysis of marijuana compared to alcohol or opiates, which he described as more dangerous alternatives.
At the moment, NFL teams regularly prescribe addictive opioid painkillers or anti-inflammatory injections, such as Toradol, that carry the risk of stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studied 644 NFL players in 2011, of which 52 percent said they used prescribed opioids during their playing careers. Of those 336 players, 71 percent said they misused their prescribed drugs.
"You've got all these drugs that you put in yourself just to play—they were giving me those things readily, so it was easy for me to start smoking and receiving the benefits of marijuana as a viable option [as] opposed to the prescription drugs," says Scaife, a former tight end with the Tennessee Titans. "I think people overlook that this is a medicine—and it's a healing medicine—and the rhetoric hasn't always supported that."
Major League Baseball, meanwhile, considers marijuana a prohibited substance, but major leaguers are not tested annually for cannabis consumption.
"In addition to the fact that the substance is illegal under federal law, abuse of marijuana can negatively affect the performance of professional athletes," MLB said in a statement to B/R. "Per agreement with the Players Association, marijuana is only tested for at the major league level on a for-cause basis. Players are subject to discipline if they continue to use marijuana after being provided the necessary professional resources to help them abstain from the drug."
The NHL, which didn't start testing all players for recreational drugs until 2016, declined to comment. But the league's 540-page collective bargaining agreement with its players association does not mention marijuana as a prohibited substance. The NHL does have a substance-abuse and mental-health program designed to help athletes who test for dangerously high levels of recreational substances including marijuana and cocaine.
Even as estimates are going public that 80 to 90 percent of pro athletes are at least periodically getting high, an even higher percentage of players remain fearful of the backlash and its potential impact on mid-career contracts and sponsorships, as well as post-career ventures tied to sports.
B/R approached dozens of current and former athletes over the past eight weeks, offering a forum to break their silence—on the record—about marijuana use and cannabis culture. Several also spoke—not on the record—about smoking marijuana during and after their careers, but dozens still declined to comment on camera.
"I'm speaking to help my brothers, to help people who are suffering from the same things that we've suffered," says Scaife. "There's nothing wrong with that in my eyes. The NFL was a vehicle for us and now has given us this platform to speak. So to be quiet is doing a disservice and being dishonorable to people who can't be heard."
"Somebody gotta have a voice at the end of the day," added Smith. "Because if nobody speaks up, it'll never be solved."
Multiple former players who did comment for B/R x 4/20 said they hoped current pro athletes would speak publicly about their closeted cannabis consumption. But as the push to legalize marijuana continues on a state-by-state basis, retired athletes have entered the cannabis industry seeking ways to provide safer alternatives to deal with pain management and recovery.
"Now that cannabis is legal ... I support it in sports," Hall of Fame NBA point guard Gary Payton told B/R. "As long as you do it in the right way, don't hurt anybody and don't jeopardize anybody else, I support it."
Harrington has a line of wellness products, called Harrington Wellness, that takes a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis—known as cannabidiol, or CBD—and applies it to products like topical creams. Martin, Scaife and former NBA shooting guard Cuttino Mobley are also involved in the cannabis industry, either as investors or dispensary owners.
These celebrity entrepreneurs, however, represent an anomaly as African Americans in their new professions: In 2016, BuzzFeed found that only about 1 percent of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the weed boom were owned by black people.
According to a report published in June 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
Sitting around couches in California with B/R, Barnes, Martin and Mobley all praised Harrington for how he has represented himself as an African American throughout his post-playing career in cannabis, which included an interview with former NBA Commissioner David Stern about medical marijuana.
"Before you saw [Barack] Obama be president, did you think you would become president?" Mobley told B/R. "You can say it all you want, but until minorities see things like that, they don't think they can accomplish it. So when you see [Harrington] sitting with [Stern] with that type of information, that makes you happy."
Harrington says he started smoking at the end of the 2007-08 season as a member of the Golden State Warriors, who missed the playoffs a year after their memorable "We Believe" season. Harrington remembered watching with teammates in an Arizona hotel room as the Denver Nuggets clinched the eighth seed.
"They just start sparking up," Harrington recalled, "... and I'm like, 'Man I'll try it.' And I been smokin' ever since."
Additional reporting by Mirin Fader, Adam Lefkoe, Dave Schilling and Brandon Sneed.