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August 3, 2004 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Ricky's Reefer Madness

By Gwen Knapp

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The comedy of Ricky Williams' retirement eludes Dolphins fans, but his explanations for leaving the NFL are undeniably funny. He liked smoking reefer while following Lenny Kravitz on tour and wanted to keep doing it without the hassles of answering to specimen collectors from the league office.

The candor, rarer than a streaker at Wimbledon, was worth a laugh all by itself.

As he walked away from pro football, Williams dropped the name of a cleansing agent he drank by the half-gallon before NFL drug tests. Given that Williams was facing suspension for his third positive marijuana test, this novel product endorsement fell a little short of Michael Jordan's "It's the shoes." Williams did rally, explaining that he had stopped taking precautions.

"I didn't quit football because I failed a drug test," Williams told the Miami Herald. "I failed a drug test because I was ready to quit football."

You have to admit that beats the stuffing out of "I didn't inhale."

The clarification came as a substantial relief to the cleansing agent's manufacturers, who peddle their stuff to everyday workers facing an employer's drug test. If their check isn't already in the mail, it should be.

The NFL strongly denied that the product worked, countering a growing suspicion that the drug-testing system just might be a farce.

Of course, it is a joke, a long one. Williams' tale is only one of many punch lines.

The real comedy, though, doesn't lie in Williams' chemical end-around the tests. It's that marijuana is prohibited in the sports world at all. In Olympic competition, it shares space on the banned list with steroids.

If Williams had stayed in the NFL, he would have been penalized more severely than the four Raiders who last year tested positive for THG, the alleged designer steroid connected to the BALCO lab. They were fined three-seventeenths of their salaries. Williams would have been suspended for four games without pay.

No anti-doping crusade can succeed when its enforcers become preoccupied, even for a second, with hunting down the Doobie Brothers. Screening for pot is worse than a waste of time. It confuses the already murky issue of performance-enhancing drugs.

Too many people believe that drug testing in sports exists only to support a facade of social respectability, to maintain an apple-pie, white picket-fence marketability.

In the case of pot, that's largely true. Its performance-enhancing value, if there is any, is offset by proven disadvantages. As a baffled fellow athlete so eloquently put it when a Canadian snowboarder faced disqualification for a positive marijuana test at the 1998 Olympics: "I thought it would make you want to sit on your butt and eat doughnuts."

Years ago, an NFL assistant coach told me that management didn't particularly care if players took steroids because usage made the game faster and more exciting. Marijuana and cocaine were problems because they made players hard to control.

The league does have tougher penalties for performance enhancers than pot. Williams failed three tests before he faced a suspension. Steroid users are barred for four games after one bad test. (The THG gang benefited from using an unknown substance, which made a penalty tough to assess.)

But the question remains: Why test for pot in any sport? Most employers can screen only before they hire someone. What sets the football player or the javelin thrower apart?

Former steroid users have said that they smoked dope to counteract the effects of the steroids. It made them calmer and alleviated the pain of the excessive weightlifting that steroids facilitated. Williams, diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, told the Herald that pot helped him more than the prescription antidepressant he once took.

Yet no athlete has ever said that he saw smoking dope as a threshold to success. Performance-enhancing drugs, on the other hand, have been described as a prerequisite by former users. The choice to take them rarely seems like a choice at all. It's certainly no backstage party with Lenny Kravitz.

Williams said he retired for a number of reasons, and anyone who criticizes him for wanting out should be willing to take a hit from an All-Pro linebacker. The outrageous violence of the game is a turnoff for anyone who savors the idea of walking upright at 45.

More aggressive screening for steroids might make the game safer. Nature couldn't possibly have produced so many freakishly large men who run like locomotives. Trying to eliminate pot use won't change a thing. It's irrelevant damage control, and a joke that isn't all that funny.

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