Last February, while the rest of the country was still making sense of Washington’s historic vote to legalize marijuana and Seattleites were losing their minds watching the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl, Brandon Browner was sitting at home alone.
Browner, a Seahawks cornerback since 2011 and one of the founding members of the Legion of Boom, was suspended by the NFL in December—right before Seattle’s playoff run—after running afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy for the third time. The suspension was confusing in the first place: It came after just the second time Browner tested positive for pot, but the league was treating it like his third offense because he’d missed a handful of drug tests between 2007 and 2010—when he was playing in Canada. But it must have been particularly confounding to Browner.
In the span of one year, he’d seen the state (or at least 56 percent of it) celebrate a landmark vote, then cheer him at CenturyLink Field, then turn its back on him after he was kicked out of the league for doing the very thing everyone was celebrating. Fellow cornerback Walter Thurmond, suspended for four games just a few weeks before Browner, was in the same boat. Their employer and the state in which they peddled their trades were in direct opposition.
Making matters even more confusing, their coach, Pete Carroll, is in favor of treating NFL players with medical marijuana. “Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved,” Carroll said last January, “we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this.” With all these people supposedly on his side, why was Browner watching the Super Bowl rather than playing in it? If marijuana was legal, why was he in so much trouble for smoking it?
The NFL is a famously ultra-conservative league—this is an organization that aggressively penalizes “excessive celebration” and once fined an injured player for calling his wife during a game to tell her he was okay—and its stance on marijuana has traditionally fallen along those lines. And what voters did in Washington and Colorado has done little to change that, even if teams from those two states played in the Super Bowl. The punishment for testing positive for anything more than 15 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood is four games for a first offense, six games for a second, and a minimum of a calendar year for a third. (By comparison, the standard for Olympians is 10 times as high.) Browner got slapped with the yearlong suspension, though an appeal reduced it to the first four games of this upcoming season. But his days in Seattle are done; after the Seahawks let his contract expire, he signed with the New England Patriots.
Reports surfaced in May that the players union is negotiating a change to the marijuana policy in the next collective bargaining agreement, namely raising the threshold for a positive test. (What that new level would be isn’t clear.) But the league says it plans no change in the policy. And even if it did, such a change would likely be used as a negotiating cudgel in the next agreement to hammer the players further on revenue sharing, more stringent testing for performance-enhancing drugs, and a score of other issues.
As with its stance on everything from head injuries to health care for retired players, the NFL appears behind the times and out of step with public opinion. A recent Wall Street Journal poll says 55 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, while 49 percent claim to be football fans. Weed is more popular than the NFL, making this the ideal time for the league to take a move in the direction of the public, as well as take a step toward its players, who have complained for years that a positive pot test brings with it punishments that multiple DUIs do not.
But the NFL will change its weed rules only if it can directly benefit. Because as long as television ratings are rising and the advertising money is pouring in, it doesn’t have to be in step with the times. Every state in the union could legalize weed, but the NFL would label it a workplace safety issue and stop testing only through the letting of much union blood. That is how the NFL works. It is a monopoly, and monopolies do as they please. It may seem a cold irony to Browner and Thurmond that they can be suspended from their sport even though they played in Washington, a state that has legalized their supposed offense. But they never played in Washington. They played in the nation of NFL. And it is not a democracy.
Will Leitch is a senior writer at Sports on Earth, contributing editor at New York magazine, and the founder of Deadspin.
This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met.