TrueHooper Henry Abbott brought this Sam Alipour article to my attention yesterday. The piece focuses on cannabis as part of the University of Oregon Football team. The NBA comes up, as does ubiquitous off-the-court sociologist and TV talking-head Harry Edwards (I love his style), a professor at UC Berkeley. My twin sister went to Berkeley and my family lived in the area when I was younger.
Because of this, I’m familiar with the liberal ideology that pervades the region, including the state, Oregon, directly above Northern Cali’s Humboldt region. I’ve also done a bit of writing about cannabis under a sorta pseudonym (most employers frown upon the subject matter). Here’s what Alipour and Edwards say about cannabis as part of the NBA culture today (if you remember, Charles Oakley once claimed 60% of the NBA toked up, but declined to discuss it with me when I spoke to him last year).
"Americans are ‘living in an environment where there’s a greater tolerance of use, not just among the young and experimenters but also the old and afflicted,’ says Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sports sociology who works with major sports leagues on off-field issues. Recently, the researchers of a study in Sports Medicine wrote that athletes claim ‘smoking cannabis before play helps them focus better’ and increases their creativity, and prior studies have found use among athletes to decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension.
With social mores shifting toward wider acceptance, as they did long ago in Oregon, athletes who toke see little difference between marijuana and more acceptable, legal drugs, such as alcohol. Spend a night with an off-duty pro and you’re more likely to see him high than drunk. One NBA player’s recent charity event devolved into players from rival teams hotboxing the DJ booth and bonding over blunts. At another fundraiser, Snoop Dogg asked the audience — many of whom were NFL and NBA players — to pass him some weed, and they showered him with flaming joints. One professional athlete likes to tell the story of a traffic stop that ended with the officer telling him to leave his weed at home — ‘and good luck this season.’”
Here’s the thing about this framing of cannabis* in athletics: it’s not clear-cut. First, cannabis’ ability to stimulate creativity is a tenuous one at best. There have been studies that focus on “semantic hyper-priming” in users. That’s science speak for associating two words or ideas to others on a more tangential or ethereal level. Hyper semantic-priming means you can coalesce a connection between two seemingly divergent ideas more easily than normal semantic-priming. Basically, if you smoke herb, it relaxes your hierarchy of associations. It’s a butterfly-effect in thought where you relate more things to each other and can make more connections than you could normally without the drug. I won’t get into any more specifics, but you can read this post, if you’re really curious.
As someone that’s never shied away from my enthusiasm for cannabis or hash, I can say this heightened creativity (for lack of a better word) is sometimes the case, but it depends on the strain (Indica’s are better for it, but you generally fall asleep faster) and a variety of other factors. A sativa strain might be more beneficial for an athlete, as it’s normally associated with a body high, rather than indica’s brain high.
I used to smoke blunts in high school and go play pick-up basketball for hours and hours on end. It did free me of any anxiety I might have about being the only Caucasian guy at the park, or my stridency with keeping my elbow locked at a perpendicular angle on my jump-shot. This obsession with form was often at the detriment of, you know, hitting the freakin’ shot, so in that respect it was beneficial.
So I understand the onus some players might place on cannabis as a cure-all for any psychological demons they may have on a basketball court. The problem is the level we’re talking about here. NBA players are professional athletes, and if they’re concerned about a hitch in their shot, or maybe they’re nervous about playing in front of a large crowd, cannabis isn’t going to solve those issues at that level. If you’ve made the NBA, chances are you’ve repeated a jump shot or simple Mikan drills hundreds if not thousands of times, so it shouldn’t really be necessary, unless you’re talking creativity, which isn’t confirmed, as mentioned above.
I can’t speak to anything but cannabis in basketball and soccer, as I never played organized football growing up. I spent the majority of my senior year of high school in a LSD and cannabis stupor that did nothing to further my athletic or academic career (don’t do drugs during puberty kids). While it’s true I was an alternate for the All-Greater-R_______r team as a soccer player my senior year, I owe that more to my high school’s lack of talent after the year above me graduated. Cannabis did not make me a better soccer player, and even though it was nice to toke before hitting the playground to play ball, it was not helpful during any organized play.
Now on to the cultural aspects about the decreased emphasis on cannabis as a drug that’s ultimately harmful to those who imbibe in it’s effects. While it’s true more states are legalizing the drug for medical use, it’s still a schedule 1 drug according to the FDA. As such, the decriminalization of smaller amounts is warranted, but it’s still illegal and isn’t treated with the leniency other, more harmful drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, still share in middle-america public consciousness and federal courts.
I think Vin Baker and Keon Clark’s alcoholism was ultimately more harmful to them as players than other players busted for cannabis like Michael Beasley, Marcus Camby or Damon Stoudemire. Beasley might be a special case because he could have other psychological demons at work (like bi-polar disorder etc.). But, from where I sit as someone that’s familiar with the drug and how the government feels about it, I think it’s probably not such a bad thing players are hot-boxing the DJ booth rather than getting sloshed on Hennessy. Then again, cannabis’ effects on a smoker’s appetite may be something to keep in mind for players that have struggled to stay trim (I’m looking at you Baron Davis, Boris Diaw and Ray Felton).
In the long run, cannabis will not kill you or even produce a physical dependency like cigarettes and alcohol can, but it can also lead to laziness, or an inability to work hard that’s always a problem if you’re a professional athlete. Not only that, but smoking cannabis means it’s producing cancerous carcinogen’s in an athlete’s body. The same body that’s expected to keep their wind during 48 minutes of the most demanding level of basketball in the world.
I think it’s safe to say, you shouldn’t smoke cannabis if you’re a professional basketball player, but for someone like Bill Walton (who claimed it help him calm down after getting so hyped up for games) or anyone else that struggles to maintain a relaxed mind on the basketball court, it could be just the thing. Like all issues, it comes down to the individual.
I’m sorry to bombard you with so many words on this subject. This piece and the surrounding analysis is near and dear to my heart as a (careful) proponent of cannabis and a lover of basketball.
*the etymology of the word marijuana may have originated with the Mexican marihuana, but marijuana’s use in English became common in the 1930’s when the debate about it’s legality first came up. The conservative base at the forefront of making it illegal believed marijuana was more exotic sounding, and furthered their plan to place cannabis outside the pale of common American practices—like alcohol and cigrettes. As such, I’ve tried to refrain from it’s use when speaking or writing. Cannabis is a plant, and so you should think long and hard before using marijuana in your everyday lexicon. And yes, I’m aware of how much this whole asterisk might appear as some semantic doggerel, but it’s important to be as accurate as possible when discussing a divisive issue.