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Reefer Madness in NFL's Drug Rules


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On Wednesday, Ricky Williams got the OK to return to the NFL at age 30. He has spent the last 18 months in exile from the league, paying for his fourth and fifth positive marijuana tests. He also lost the 2004 season to a temporary retirement, triggered by his second and third failed tests.

All told, Williams has missed three years of his prime for an offense that the NFL has no more business adjudicating than speeding violations. Now it's inconceivable that he could return to his peak as an athlete, when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards four years in a row, including a league-leading 1,853 in 2002. Those times are almost certainly over.

Williams spent the summer of 2006 in the CFL and he wasn't what anyone would call an impact player, except when the controversy over his signing prompted the Canadian league to pass a rule against employing anyone else who was under suspension from the NFL.

He may be healthier now, prepared to outdo his 526 rushing yards in 11 games with the Toronto Argonauts. But we'll never know what Williams might have achieved if the NFL testing program stuck to its real purpose. Few people would argue that pot gives a football player a competitive advantage, or that carrying a pigskin while high on weed represents a threat to public safety. So why does the NFL poke around an employee's body fluids for this stuff?

Lawbreaking isn't sufficient explanation. In other matters, the commissioner reacts to criminal activity after the police have filed a report. He doesn't dig up the dirt himself. But for recreational drug use, the league has the equivalent of a blanket search warrant. Foolishly, the union signed it. What's next? An electronic bracelet for Adam "Pacman" Jones that goes off whenever he comes within 50 yards of a strip joint and a bag of cash?

The tests for marijuana and cocaine - also performed by the NBA - are social pacifiers, nothing more. They don't clean up the game. They spit-shine its image.

The result isn't all bad. Williams must have lost control of his life to a frightening degree if he couldn't give up the reefer when he knew that he would be tested and that he would lose millions over a bad urine sample.

When he quit football to live as an iconoclast, traveling with Lenny Kravitz and then becoming a yoga master, Williams' attachment to pot made him seem more like an old-fashioned hippie than an addict. But when he wanted back in, then still tested positive this spring, the dope-smoking became genuinely ominous.

But if the NFL's suspension was just a dose of tough love, the league would also intercede in all addictions, even to legal products. We've yet to hear of a coach or player sanctioned for a vodka dependence, or anyone being breathalyzed at the hotel bar. Think they all know their limits?

If the NFL prides itself on curing Williams, or at least not enabling him, it should have a policy on painkiller addictions like the one Brett Favre revealed in 1996. At the sentencing for Andy Reid's two sons, the courtroom learned that the younger one, Britt, had become addicted to an array of substances after taking painkillers for a football injury at age 14. Could the game itself possibly be a gateway drug?

Williams' agent, Leigh Steinberg, once obliquely raised the question by pointing out that the Dolphins had used his client's body as "a battering ram." Williams has also admitted to a battle with depression and an extreme shyness that he once tried to correct with Paxil, which is purported to correct social-anxiety disorders.

He eventually became a celebrity endorser for the anti-depressant, a gig that the pharmaceutical company came to regret when Williams announced that pot worked 10 times better. If nothing else, you had to respect his candor.

There's no doubt that he might have found a way to derail his career without intervention from urine samples. But the NFL still draws flags for encroachment and unsportsmanlike conduct after suspending him longer than all of its BALCO clients and "patients" of a convicted South Carolina hormone doctor combined.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.
Contact: letters@sfchronicle.com
Website: SF Gate: San Francisco Chronicle
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