Another Victim of Skewed Drug Priorities

Perhaps some day soon, if you listen quiet enough, you will hear the sound of Ricky Williams reeling off long pulls from a finely crafted pot pipe. 'No more charade,' he'll say to himself in between inhales. 'No more circus.'

In case you don't know, in addition to being one of the National Football League's finest athletes and most colorful characters, Williams has a propensity for pulling bong hits. He also enjoys yoga, traveling the globe in search of cultural awakenings, and filling his mind with knowledge. If his profile were posted on Match.com, he'd score well.

This week, however, the Miami Dolphin running back failed to score a passing grade on a mandatory league drug test for the fourth time. If upheld, the failed test will result in a one-year suspension. Several things can lead to a failed score -- the presence of a banned substance or too much water in the urine, and failing to show up for the test all qualify. No one is quite sure which category Williams' test belongs this time, but the rumor mill is whispering that his urine came up 'dirty.' Williams has appealed those results.

The NFL has built up a tough drug policy over the years, some would argue the strictest in all of professional sports. The league banned steroids in 1987, and in 1990 began random testing. But just because the league has not caught many "cheaters" does not necessarily mean few are violating the policy.

In an era when Congress has demanded hearings to address steroid use, which nearly ruined professional baseball, it seems that the NFL should begin to reevaluate who it makes an example of, and why. In short, the league should be a little less worried about its pot smokers, and more worried about potential cheaters and serious criminals.

Only two years ago, several members from the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers were exposed for using prescriptions to get their hands on performance-enhancing drugs. The NFL, which has long been applauded for its tough steroid policy, all of a sudden had egg all over its face.

Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis is a repeat drug offender, just like Williams. In fact, both players are roughly the same age and have roughly the same skill level. Unlike Williams, Lewis spent time in the big house last summer for his role in a cocaine-trafficking crime. That drew a four-game suspension from league, the exact same sentence Williams got the last time he puffed and got caught. This summer Lewis is expected to make millions as a free agent. Some insiders predict that, if Williams is forced to sit out a year, no franchise will hire him when he does return. Apparently teams would rather employ a cocaine distributor than a pot smoker.

Williams is made to be an example because he is an easy target. Not so long ago, he was a sideshow in NFL circles. "Look, there's that goofy Williams kid wearing his helmet to interviews again," reporters would jab. He has always been weird, sure, and different from most other players. But hey, he is his own person, and that categorizes him with a lot of us on the outside of NFL circles. No matter where you group Williams, one place he does not belong is in the same lineup as Lewis or anyone using steroids. Still, in many ways it seems Williams has been made out to be a bigger criminal

The last time Williams failed a test, just prior to the start of the 2004 season, his name was peppered all over every sports page from Nantucket to Sacramento. Instead of squirming under the NFL's microscope, Williams left the league in his rearview mirror and embarked on a global journey on which he did what most of us had wished we could do at the age of 27 -- he took a months-long camping expedition, hung out with rock stars, smoked pot, and tried to find his place in the world. He was the butt of jokes in and away from football because he defended marijuana's medicinal and spiritual value, because he had fathered children with multiple partners, and because, despite all of the hoopla, he was still able to display a peaceful and content faade.

But, a few puffs aside, Williams is the type of player pro sports should embrace. He is human first, football player second, and there are far too few of those in the NFL, or any league these days, I'm afraid. And I am not suggesting that the pot makes him a character, nor am I condoning his usage. I'm merely asking why the league would turn its back on a spiritual being like Williams, and yet seemingly embrace cheaters and a convicted felon.

Last year, when Williams returned to the league, he sat out four games and then came back to play brilliantly toward the end of the season. He vowed to be a changed man, not the low-life pot smoker the league, the media and the fans had labeled him to be. Secretly, I wished Williams was really smoking pot that whole time rather than to believe the league hadn't beaten down another individual into conformity. And, instead of coming back to pay off the debt he owed his employer, I wished that deep down Williams came back only because he loved to run away from tacklers on a field, not for any other of the dozens of self-indulgent reasons pro athletes play ball these days.

And so when Williams failed another test this week, I let out a silent cheer. I do not say that because I condone his taking drugs, but rather because he seemed to have more to offer society when he smoked pot than when he was just another football player. No matter the outcome of his appeal, I hope Williams will one day again be just a man among us, a father, a thinker and a spokesman for individuality.

So I say, toke up and toke on, Ricky Williams. Pot may not make you faster or stronger, but it's much better for you than the drugs that do.

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