Why Sports Teams Worry About Marijuana Use

Six years ago, I stood in a hotel in Newport Beach, Calif., waiting for Gene Orza to get off the stage. As second in command at the Major League Baseball Players Association, Orza was being pestered with questions about why the union wouldn’t agree to more stringent steroid testing.

Orza was pretty vanilla on stage, but when he stepped in front of my recorder, he grew more animated.

“Let’s assume that [steroids] are a very bad thing to take,” Orza said. “I have no doubt that they are not worse than cigarettes. But I would never say to the clubs as an individual who represents the interests of the players, ‘Gee, I guess by not allowing baseball to suspend and fine players for smoking cigarettes, I am not protecting their health.’ "

Unprompted, Orza continued talking.

“Whether it’s good or bad for you, it’s a far cry to say that because it’s bad for you, you should participate in a structure which allows your employer to punish you for doing something that you shouldn’t be doing,” Orza said. “That’s not my understanding of what unions do for their employees.”

Within minutes of publishing the story, I received emails from readers critical of Orza, including one from Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-NY), who was sponsoring the Anabolic Control Act of 2004.

Every one of these emails seemed to be saying that, as role models, baseball players should be subjected to the most stringent of tests and should be clean. More importantly for baseball fans was the fact that they wanted to believe that what they were watching was real and not what we later learned it to be—an era of juiced up players who statistics were equally as juiced.

It wasn’t only the union’s fault. It was the teams too. They quietly wanted their players to slam home runs and be superheroes. It was undeniably marketable.

Not In the Playbook

The subject of marijuana doesn’t get much attention when it comes to its use by players. But behind the scenes it worries teams.

Sure, a player could break down while using a performance enhancer. It stretches muscles and pushes the boundaries.

But marijuana really doesn’t have any athletic enhancing benefits. By many accounts, it inhibits performance. It impairs memory, hurts coordination and could affect heart rate.

Orza’s point was that teams shouldn’t care about a player’s well being in life. But that’s not true. The player is an investment. Will a player die of lung cancer while he’s playing because he smokes cigarettes? Likely not. But will his decreased lung capacity possibly affect his performance? Maybe. Will a player who smokes marijuana lose all his brain cells and forget how to run certain plays? Not likely. But should it affect how a team looks at that player? Of course.

The issue is that unlike testing of performance-enhancing drugs, drugs of abuse—like marijuana—are not frequently tested among the sports leagues.

And that’s really where the problem comes in.

Draft Picks Suspect

Now is the time of year where the marijuana discussion will get the most talk. Why? Because it’s the National Football League and National Basketball Association drafts and knowing which players have a history of smoking weed is one of the many things that teams look at.

Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks recently wrote that NFL talent evaluators are concerned about the draft class for next week’s draft because of “the increased number of prospects who have a history of marijuana use in their background.”

According to Banks, at least ten players who could be potential first-round picks were red-flagged for marijuana use.

What teams choose to do with that information is up to them, but with the amount of money being thrown at these players, there’s fewer and fewer people who will fall on the side of Orza’s side of the argument. What the players do that could help or hurt their performance in either way will now always be the business of the teams.

After all, in the first round of the NFL draft alone, more than $200 million in guaranteed money will be thrown about and marijuana use history might be just as important for some teams as the time the player scored on the 40.