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The politics of pot in professional football

A week ago Wednesday, Sam Hurd sat in a psych ward after receiving a 15-year prison sentence—suicide watch being customary for inmates freshly condemned to long stretches in federal prison—for drug trafficking. Let us set aside for a moment the cocaine-related chapters in Hurd's case and consider those an aberration. Sure, there are probably a few other Sam Hurds in the league who procure and provide high-end marijuana to teammates, but there probably aren't any NFL players currently conspiring to traffic tons of cocaine with men they believe to be cartel-affiliated mercenaries. And if there were any, the details of the Hurd case have hopefully persuaded them to stop.

In the lower-stakes world of marijuana, particularly the vines that crawl into the small, moist biosphere of the NFL, athletes who choose to inhale the smoke of the burning cannabis plant must make a solemn pact with each other before they light up: Don't tell nobody about this.

Seriously, dog. Like, nobody.

Among the many things we can learn from the Hurd story is that players are good at keeping secrets. Hurd concealed his obsession with the plant with Walter Whitean precision. "If you weren't in my little group, you had no clue," he says. "I never drove with it, that was one rule. I wasn't one of those dudes to get caught with a blunt in his ashtray. I never smelled like it. My hair was always super short, so it never clung to me. I had my room upstairs where I did my thing, away from my wife and daughter."

We can also learn, based on interviews with NFL players who smoke, that many of them see marijuana as a viable option to the pills and injections given to them by their employers to manage the side effects of their violent occupation. The phrase "after I had [insert body part] surgery" came up often during my interviews with NFL players. More and more, it seems, are secretly leaning on the organic solution that former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson described in his book Slow Getting Up as "drugs of my choosing, drugs that don't come out of a needle and won't eat away my stomach lining."

This fear of being found out might explain why the courtroom contained not a single NFL player when Hurd was sentenced, and it explains why fewer than five players reached out to Hurd's family as his sentencing hearing approached. Maybe the rest of Hurd's former teammates didn't know when the sentencing date was, one might argue. But that alibi is wrecked by two witnesses who claim that several NFL players begged them not to testify at the hearing out of fear that they might be revealed as tokers, and that a few of those players still owe Hurd significant amounts of money. If these two witnesses, who decided not to testify, are to be believed, then these players sweated out Wednesday's hearing like undrafted free agents sweating out final cuts.

This war within the NFL mirrors America's war on drugs. Even though a Gallup poll last month revealed that, for the first time, most Americans favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use, if a backup/special-teamer type were to take such a stand, he could expect a phone call from his coach, GM or agent, and he could expect his career to be shorter than if he had kept his mouth shut. The same holds true for elected officials who see no political gain in questioning a larger drug war that makes less sense, and eviscerates more American families, with each passing year. The victim in both cases is our ability to understand this substance and these issues, which by the looks of things aren't going away.


To read Michael McKnight's story on the downfall of former NFL wide receiver Sam Hurd, who is serving a 15-year sentence for conspiring to possess and distribute cocaine and marijuana, visit