Until I lost it at a house party on Del Playa Drive last spring, my Ricky Williams jersey was my most prized piece of sports memorabilia. Forget the Ken Griffey Jr. foul ball and autographed Mark McGwire rookie card. Ricky’s green armor meant more to me than courtside Warriors tickets. What’s the big deal about Ricky? Well, do you know anyone else that turned down millions of dollars, a mountain of NFL records and gaudy prime time commercial appearances to smoke the reefer? I didn’t think so.
But that’s not entirely accurate — Williams didn’t walk away from millions just to toke up whenever he felt the opportunity. Known for his shyness in public, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner at Texas was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2001 and felt marijuana helped him cope in certain social situations. Williams also explored treatment with GlaxoSmithKline’s antidepressant drug Paxil and worked with the pharmaceutical company to help teach others about the disorder, and empower the 53 million U.S. adults who share the disorder. But Williams soon admitted that marijuana produced far fewer side effects than Paxil, and ended his ties with GlaxoSmithKline.
Williams’ first positive test for marijuana came after he joined the Miami Dolphins in 2002. That season, he led the league in carries at 383 and rushing yards at 1,853. In December 2003, he failed his second drug test, and then announced his retirement from the league before training camp the following season. He explained his personal views clashed with the NFL’s absurd substance abuse policy. In the season without Williams, the Dolphins managed their worst record since the 1960s, going 4-12 as the second-worst team in the NFL. The league continued to make matters worse for Ricky. He has since returned to the Dolphins, failed another drug test, played in Canada for the CFL, attempted to re-join the Dolphins and failed another drug test. During his time away, Williams converted to Hinduism, taught free yoga lessons and spent time at a Native American school of holistic medicine called Ayuveda in Grass Valley, California.
After seven seasons in the NFL, Williams tested positive for marijuana a total of five times, has served a year and four games worth of suspensions and owes the Dolphins a total of $8.6 million for breaching his contract in 2004 by retiring.
But the problem doesn’t rest in Ricky’s hands. The NFL and its ridiculous substance abuse policy is what needs to spend some time in the review booth.
In what couldn’t be further from the truth, in 2003, broadcast analyst Cris Collinsworth wrote that the NFL’s best policies concerned the handling of the steroid issue. Collinsworth’s ignorance of the NFL is sickeningly ironic as he erroneously praises the harshness of steroid penalties. He explains that first offenses carry a four-game suspension, a second comes with a six-game suspension and a third offense results in at least a year away from the field. Chris must be breathing exhaust fumes. Suspensions that the NFL dishes out for marijuana offenses are foolishly similar. Williams was suspended for four games and fined $650,000 for his second offense and faced the same one-year suspension as with his third positive test for marijuana.
How does that add up? With more athletes these days admitting to smoking weed, marijuana-related suspensions might start spewing out of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ass like a cascading bong rip. Michael Vick and rookies like Calvin Johnson, have been blasted recently by the media for smoking weed. It seems the NFL will continue to lead the ban bandwagon, failing to recognize which substances hinder the game and its players and which substances they should leave up to the players’ discretion and their psychological needs.
Ricky didn’t abandon his team, his coaches or his fans. The NFL abandoned him long before he had a chance to prove himself and his vast array of talents.