Record-setting gold medalist Michael Phelps found himself in hot water after evidence of his cannabis use was leaked back in 2009. But the gifted swimmer hasn’t been the only athlete who's toking has provoked some controversy. As Olympic season looms, and debate continues to rage over the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports, let’s take a look at a few athletes who have brought a pastime much less dangerous than doping into the public consciousness.
In 2008, Michael Phelps was on top of the world. Not only had the swimmer set a staggering seven world records in timed events at the Beijing Summer Olympics, he also won eight gold medals over the course of the games - the most of any athlete in recorded history. That’s why his sensationalized fall from grace was so staggering when, in 2009, a British tabloid published a photo of the athlete taking a bong hit at a University of South Carolina party. The reaction was swift: Phelps’ sponsor Kellogg, a gold standard in wholesome public relations, pulled his endorsement, citing his behavior as “not consistent” with the company’s image. Phelps also lost a significant stipend from national governing body USA Swimming, and was suspended from further competition for three months. He rocketed back in the 2012 Olympics with six more medals and subsequently emerged from an early retirement to announce his competition in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. Flagrant invasion of Phelps’ privacy aside, the real injustice here is that Phelps’ teammate Ryan Lochte has evaded any similar stoner notoriety. Come on, have you ever heard that guy talk?
A 2003 first round draft pick, forward Josh Howard was instrumental in bringing the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA finals, averaging 18 points per game for the season. Howard made waves when, questioned by the Dallas Morning News in 2008, he admitting to cannabis use in the off-season. Howard was even more forthcoming in a follow-up interview with ESPN radio, in which he acknowledged that widespread use by NBA players was something of an open secret; Howard also defended his own off-season use, stating that his experience with cannabis had
“nothing to do with what I do as far as basketball.”
Somewhat unprecedented in its frankness, Howard’s honesty resulted in internal censure from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Although Howard could not have been suspended from play without tangible evidence of illegal behavior, his statement made sports headlines. Although his career has taken a bit of a dip, there’s no denying that Josh Howard’s candor about common cannabis use in sports has done the uncommon job of demystifying the private lives of athletes who are often lauded as superheroes.
Not all athletes run up against controversy when admitting to cannabis use. With a legendary college career and two NBA championships to his name, Bill Walton is generally considered one of the best basketball players of all time. Perhaps because of this elder statesman status, Walton has had the luxury of expounding on his cannabis views. Now a sometime commentator with his own radio show, he makes no secret of his affinity for weed. He’s joked about Colorado’s legalization on the air and sometimes seems easily distracted. Most significantly, in response to the suspension of University of Washington center Robert Upshaw’s dismissal following a failed drug test, Walton called on President Obama to tackle drug reform, bemoaning the fact that
“there are people languishing in jails for things that are legal.”
A true product of his time, Walton is an avowed Deadhead and has waxed poetic about the spiritual fulfillment that comes with attending concerts alone. Rumor has it that UCLA coach John Wooden even allowed Walton, his star player, to toke up after college games.
Before he was the Governator -- or even the Terminator -- Arnold Schwarzenegger was just an aspiring Austrian bodybuilder with a penchant for some well-earned relaxation. A moment in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron shows all 245 pounds of Schwarzenegger kicking back after the Mr. Olympia competition, puffing on a joint and enjoying a plate of fried chicken. He’s made no attempt to backpedal on his cannabis use, frankly stating, “I really smoked it, and I always inhaled.” Schwarzenegger has also made some steps towards practicing what he preached: as governor of California, in 2010 he signed a bill decriminalizing the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and capping the penalty at a $100 fine. Months later, he drove the point home in a Tonight Show with Jay Leno interview, offhandedly saying
“no one cares if you smoke a joint or not”; he went on to speculate that California legalization initiative Proposition 19 failed at the polls because of its poor legal construction rather than its cannabis-friendly goal.
Eugene Monroe is one athlete who’s taken a more forceful, activist stance on the role of cannabis in sports. Formerly a top offensive tackle prospect and one of the top paid players on the Baltimore Ravens roster, Monroe sustained a series of injuries in his later career -- most notably, some early warning signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE). In May 2016, he called for the NFL to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances, citing the drug’s scientifically proven medical benefits and its potential to supplant the league’s dangerous reliance on opioids as a means of pain relief. With an increasing national focus on the debilitating neurological injuries (and subsequent financial burdens) sustained by football players and other contact sport athletes, Monroe’s advocacy comes at a particularly relevant time. Unfortunately, Monroe was cut from the Ravens shortly after his controversial statements -- although he claimed that the move was evidence of the NFL’s effort to distance itself from any consideration of cannabis accommodation, other have cited his injuries and faltering performance. Now retired, Monroe continues to call for the league to look more closely at cannabis’ medical benefits; learn more at his personal website.