Former NFL player Ricky Williams on the sideline during a game
After retiring in the prime of his carrer after a third positive marijuana test, former NFL running back Ricky Williams explained that he had lost interest in fame and celebrity status. (photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary)

In August 2019, former National Football League (NFL) player Chris Long declared that he smoked marijuana and “is a good person”. Long is not the first professional athlete to discuss marijuana use, and his comments situate him in a conversation many former players are having about the benefits of marijuana compared to traditional pain killers. Long’s comments are also part of larger marijuana reform movements happening in places such as Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Uruguay, and the U.S. In the U.S., however, it is white marijuana users like Chris Long who tend to get the benefit of the doubt with respect to being a “good person”.

Black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites despite similar rates of usage. These racial disparities are still present in U.S. states where marijuana is legal. Even within the legal cannabis industry, those running dispensaries and other parts of the recreational marijuana market are disproportionately white and male, allowing them to profit from the plant while women and racial minorities struggle to gain the same access. These inequities are representative of the long history of marijuana prohibition discourse that has used narratives of race, gender, social class, and nation to argue for the outlawing of the plant.

Within sport, former NFL player Ricky Williams is perhaps the most famous athlete that has used marijuana. In fact, Sports Illustrated called him “America’ s most infamous stoner-athlete”.  This label most likely comes from Williams’s long history with the plant. In 2004, during the prime of his career, Williams retired after a third positive marijuana test. During this time Williams had a medical marijuana prescription for his social anxiety, became a yoga instructor, and went to school for holistic medicine. Williams returned to the NFL in 2005, but was subsequently suspended for marijuana use again in 2006. This period found Williams ensnared into several competing narratives regarding marijuana use, including selfishness, discourses that labeled him a quitter, the “Bob Marley of football”, a bad role model, and Williams’s own description of his drug use as something he did because he wanted to quit football.

Ultimately, narratives about Williams cannot be separated from larger understandings of race and masculinity, and his case provides an important means for exploring broader narratives of Black masculinity in connection to sport and marijuana use. In a recent study, I examined narratives of Williams’s marijuana use in relation to Black masculinity, conducting a systematic investigation of articles appearing in the printed press as well as the documentaries Run Ricky Run (2010) and A football life: Ricky Williams (2014).

Sport is a useful space to examine complexities involved in narratives about marijuana use, as popular culture has been used historically to justify marijuana prohibition. For example, yellow journalism, film, and other forms of popular culture were used to perpetuate the belief that marijuana made Mexican and Black men violent, criminal, and hypersexual. Additionally, prohibitionists spread the belief that white women who smoked would become sexually deviant and have sex with men of color outside of wedlock. By capitalizing on the demonization of oppressed groups and by enflaming stigmatized narratives of interracial sex, prohibitionists such as Harry Anslinger were able to carve an easier path to prohibition. In essence, Blacks, Mexicans, and white women who used marijuana did not get to be “good people”.

By the 1960s, marijuana use grew among white, middle-class college students. This demographic change helped shift media narratives to focus on white teens who were “good people”, but made a mistake by smoking cannabis. The demographic shift also led to marijuana users being stereotyped as unproductive but not violent, with a connection to counter-cultural movements and leftist politics. Thus, Williams’s marijuana use and Long’s comments are part of a long history of marijuana prohibition shaped by issues of race, gender, and social class.

Similar narratives about marijuana use and stereotypical constructions of Black masculinity are prevalent in the sport media’s discussion of Williams. While Williams’ marijuana use was situated across a variety of different narratives, I found that the framing of Williams’s marijuana use as selfish and hedonistic was most dominant. I contend that this is due to the media’s inability to conceptualize the complexity of Williams, his performance of Black masculinity, and his identity as a Black marijuana user. From the onset, Williams was framed as a strange individual. “Ricky’s personality is the furthest thing you’d expect from a football player. He’s more like a writer, a poet,” suggested Greg Colbourne of the Toronto Star. Williams was often classified as a “bohemian” or “someone that cannot be defined”, positioning him as unrecognizable within professional football.

More so, these attributes are not recognizable because they do not fit into stereotypical tropes of Black masculinity as hyper-masculine and criminal or assimilated to white middle-class norms of respectability. The inability to understand Williams and his actions result in his marijuana use being pigeonholed into easily recognizable tropes of the Black male athlete. Comments like Greg Stoda of The Palm Beach Post, stating Williams “doesn’t care about anybody except Ricky Williams”,  or one-liners like “Ricky Williams, whose pot history is positively Marleyesque”, and the many others like it fall into the stereotypical tropes of the Black athlete and Black marijuana use.

The selfish and hedonistic athlete is consistently framed through the Black male body, but these labels of selfishness and hedonism were also applied to Black jazz musicians of the 1930s. Further, by calling Williams the “Bob Marley of football” and other similar labels, the Rastafarian and anti-colonial politics of Marley are erased, and instead both Marley and Williams are situated in historical discourses of hedonism and Black marijuana use. This connection obscures any association of Black marijuana use and politics. Thus, Williams is entwined with multiple messages that narrowly interpret the behavior of the Black body as selfish. And as a result, this obscures more complex reasons for Williams’s actions and choice to use marijuana.

For instance, Williams had a medical marijuana prescription for his anxiety disorder, and after retiring, he went on to train as a yoga teacher and holistic healer. Williams has specifically credited yoga for helping to restore balance in his life. More so, Williams has frequently stated “I didn’t quit football because I failed a drug test. I failed a drug test because I was ready to quit football”. This narrative aligns with Williams’ discussion of losing interest in fame and money leading to his first retirement. These more complex narratives are explored in both ESPN’s 30 for 30: Run Ricky Run documentary and NFL Films’ A football life: Ricky Williams. The NFL Films documentary celebrates football and the career of Williams through a redemption narrative, while ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, although not produced by Williams, involved his input capturing the complexity of his life “warts and all”.

These documentaries allow Williams to bring his own narrative into the larger sport media discourse of his marijuana use and retirement. Such alternative narratives from Williams and (occasionally from the press), offer the possibility to open new and wider ideas about what it means to be a Black athlete and a Black athlete who uses marijuana. Thus, considering cases such as Williams’ marijuana use may help us think more critically about the meaning we attach to marijuana and its different users—or more plainly, it helps render visible who gets to be a “good person” that uses marijuana. Reframing our understandings of marijuana and its users could generate support for marijuana and CBD oil to be used medicinally by athletes. More so, critically thinking about narratives of marijuana use and their relation to the history of marijuana prohibition has the potential to humanize both women and racial minorities who use the plant—a process that could work to counter-act racial disparities in marijuana enforcement and issues of discrimination within the legal cannabis industry. To do so would allow a broader scope of individuals to use marijuana and remain a “good person”.

Nik Dickerson is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Sociology at the University of Lincoln, UK. Both his research and teaching use sport and popular culture to explore historical and contemporary narratives of race and its intersections in the United States. He is particularly interested in representations of marijuana users within the marijuana reform movement, and issues of Blackness within ice hockey.