Photo by Joe Robbins
The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are playing this Sunday's Super Bowl in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which means it could be the coldest Super Bowl ever. The Broncos have the NFL's top offense and the Seahawks have the NFL's top defense, which means it could be the most exciting Super Bowl ever. And the two teams happen to be from the two states that legalized recreational marijuana this year, which means it will inspire the most weed jokes of any Super Bowl ever.
But the issue of marijuana legalization is serious business for many current and former NFL players. With their bodies wrecked by years of physical abuse, some retirees see marijuana as a less harmful alternative to heavy-duty painkillers. Active players — even ones on the Broncos and Seahawks — are banned from using marijuana under current NFL rules, but Commissioner Roger Goodell didn't entirely rule out the possibility of an eventual change to the policy when he said earlier this year that the league “will continue to support the evolution of medicine" to help deal with pain and injuries.
“We’ve asked experts on substance-abuse disorders and addiction to make recommendations, and to date they haven’t recommended any change [in our policies],” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told VICE News. “There are other medications doctors can use for effective treatment of pain. If there is a rigorous scientific process in place to determine that the only drug that could help is medical marijuana, then we would consider allowing it in necessary cases.”
Even current NFL drug-testing policies make it pretty easy for players to get high. Tests for steroids are random and relatively frequent, but most players are tested for pot and other recreational drugs only during the offseason, between April 20 and August 9. (That’s no joke: The testing period really begins on 4/20.) Nevertheless, several players were suspended this year for THC-tainted urine, including Seahawks defensive backs Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner. Thurmond missed four games during the season, while Browner, a repeat offender, is missing out on the Super Bowl due to a one-year suspension.
Browner and many other current NFL players contacted for this story declined to comment or flatly ignored questions about pot. Even at Super Bowl media day — a preposterous circus atmosphere that includes reporters in costumes asking the most absurd questions imaginable — several Seattle and Denver players clammed up at the mere mention of the word marijuana.
“We all make mistakes,” Thurmond said when asked about his suspension. “We have a great group of non-judgmental guys. Everyone understands the situation, and I didn’t get any grief from anybody in the organization, or on my team.”
Pot is clearly still a taboo topic in NFL circles, but a handful of veterans have spoken out in favor of legalization. That includes Kyle Turley, a former offensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs. Turley had a reputation of being a talented but emotionally erratic player, and was probably best known for an incident during the 2001 season in which he tore off an opponent’s helmet and tossed it across the field in a fit of rage. He says smoking pot allowed him to unwind after games.
“I believe that it helped me mentally and allowed me to take it down a notch,” Turley says now. “On the football field you have to flip a switch to be the person you need to be to perform a violent, violent job. Especially the position I played. Every day I went to work to get into a fight. You’re lifting weights, you’re watching film to see where to put your hands on a guy to punch and choke him — whatever you can do to win. You have to take it to another level mentally. Sometimes that didn’t go away when I left the field.”
Turley retired after the 2007 season, but he still has massive tatted arms and shoulder-length blond hair, and he now puts out "power-country" albums that sound like a cross between Johnny Cash and Danzig. But Turley was raised Mormon, rarely drinks alcohol, and says he didn’t smoke weed until his third year in the NFL, when one of his teammates urged him to give it a try.
“I was telling him about my problems, and finally he said ‘KT, dude, just smoke this,’” Turley recalls. “Sure enough, that was it. I could sleep finally, I wasn’t as depressed, I could go home and just rest and chill out and not be worried about the world. I was able to relax. It was something that really proved to be beneficial. They pumped every other drug into us while we were playing to mend our injuries, but there was nothing for our minds.”
A two-time All-Pro, Turley says marijuana had no negative impact on his ability to perform on the field. And the list of NFL players linked to marijuana includes greats like Warren Sapp, Randy Moss, and running back Ricky Williams, who had as many failed drug tests (four) as he had 1,000-yard rushing seasons. In addition to Thurmond and Browner, the Seahawks roster includes star running back Marshawn Lynch, who in 2009 was arrested for possessing a loaded gun after police searched his car and also found four joints, and receiver Percy Harvin, who tested positive for THC at the NFL combine in 2009 before going on to be named the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Drug arrests have ended many NFL careers, and occasionally led to lengthy prison sentences. Former Dallas Cowboys lineman Nate Newton was pulled over twice by police in a span of five weeks in 2001, and caught with loads of 213 and 175 lbs. of marijuana respectively; he was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Sam Hurd, a former wide receiver for the Cowboys and Chicago Bears, is currently serving 15 years in federal prison for asking an undercover DEA agent to ship him cocaine and 1,000 lbs. of weed per week in 2011. According to the “conservative estimate” Hurd shared with Sports Illustrated, “at least half” of all NFL players smoke pot at some point during the season.
While Seahawks and Broncos players no longer risk being arrested for petty pot possession, they are still subject to the same costly suspensions as everybody else in the league; the NFL policy on marijuana is governed by a collective bargaining agreement that doesn’t expire until 2020. NFL Players Association spokesman Carl Francis said the union is “not in a position to discuss at this time” whether they believe changes should be made to the agreement.
Player advocates say the league needs to take action. "How do you drug-test people when smoking marijuana is legal?” asks Ken Ruettgers, a former Green Bay Packers lineman who now operates a non-profit that helps retired players transition to new careers. “Let’s say I play for Tampa Bay and we’re going to play the Seahawks in Seattle. We go out a day early, and I get stoned legally. Then I come back and test positive for marijuana. What’s the NFL policy going to be?”
Turley says he chuckled when he realized the Super Bowl features teams from the two states that legalized marijuana but hopes the game will spark serious debate. Win or lose, he doesn’t expect players from either team to start the conversation. Pot might be pervasive in the NFL, but nobody wants to talk about it.
“It’s widespread and accepted,” Turley says. “Not just by players but by coaches too. I’m not going to be the one to name names, but everyone knows it, even owners. It’s unfortunate that it’s harmed so many people because of the criminalization.”