Smoked Out: Larry Sanders, Marijuana, and the NBA

Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks was smoked out Friday as the NBA handed down a suspension for five of the team’s last six games. Sanders’ crime is violating the “anti-aging” drug policy the NBA has in place. Sanders tested positive for use of marijuana. Like John Goodman said in The Big Lebowski, “This is what happens, Larry!”

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sanders was diplomatic at first. He said all the right things including owning up that he let his team as well as his fans down. Sanders said, “I take full responsibility for my actions.” Milwaukee agreed. “Larry Sanders has a responsibility to every person in our organization and our fans,” the Bucks said in the news release. “We are all disappointed by the news of his suspension.”

Milwaukee recently signed Sanders to a 4-year $44 million contract.

Why is this story a story?

Here’s where it gets interesting. “In a lot of ways we’ve been deprived,” Sanders claims, according to the Journal Sentinel. This is a severe deviation from the normal media spot, apology, and recuperation of the image. “You can’t really label it with so many other drugs that people can be addicted to and have so many negative effects on your body and your family and your relationships and impairment. This is not the same thing.” It seems the positive test made Sanders think harder about his usage – and become more vocal.

Sanders adds, “The stigma is that it’s illegal” – no, Larry. It is illegal. Wisconsin’s legislation on adopting medicinal uses is still in the state congress. He continues, “I hate [the perception]. Once this becomes legal, this all will go away. But I understand for my work it’s a banned substance. I will deal with the consequences and I apologize again to my fans for that.”

So basically Larry Sanders is saying “for my work” – for the Association – it’s banned and I’m sorry they banned it. Sanders apology is very ho-hum until this point. Now, Sanders seems an advocate.

Sanders didn’t stop there, “I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it. I know what it is if I’m going to use it.” Then, he delivered the line of the interview, “I closely study marijuana.”

Hm. Really? Study it? If Sanders is merely a student, Cheech and Chong are National Honor Society members. The study and belief of medical marijuana does not make it right, but it does arouse questions.

Strategically, since the Seattle Supersonics no longer exist, Sanders’ next move should be to request a trade to the Denver Nuggets.

Since any likelihood of that is over, Sanders’ situation presents an interesting case. Pete Carroll, coach of Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, and New York Jets Corner Back Antonio Cromartie, have both advocated for its legalization and laud its medicinal abilities.

This societal collision with sports opens doors. If a player in Colorado were suspended for violating the league’s drug policy, does that mean that the legislation of the NBA supersedes the legislation of the state? Is the NBA saying their laws are bigger and more comprehensive than the state government?

The NBA, unlike the NFL, doesn’t qualify as a 501 (c)6 non-profit organization so it is a separate enterprise totally from the federal government and receives none of the same tax advantages that the NFL does. Therefore, the NBA establishing anti-drug policy is like any private company, or like scholarship qualifications. If you don’t have a 3.0 GPA, you can’t apply. You can be in school with a 2.9, but you can’t apply for the scholarship. Think of school like the state and the scholarship like the NBA.

Without debating the “facts” (contradictory and murky sourced as is) that always come up in legalization debates, the focus needs to be on the impending clash between sports rules and governmental rules.

Sanders – with his refusal to follow the standard code of denial, then relenting in apology until finally the story fades from public eye – has opened a door which leads down a dimly lit hallway. The hallway may contain false corridors and loose floorboards, but it must be navigated. Athletes may begin to feel that they can support anything they want – not just feel-good stories that help their ever-important “brand” – which their agents keep bringing up.

The NBA’s rules state that three positive tests for marijuana rewards the player with five court-side games on the bench in a suit rather than in the game. If the player fails a drug test by his or her work, is it up to the business to decide what measures to take against the player? Or, is it the government’s responsibility? Consumption and possession (both internal and external) are illegal in Wisconsin, which brings up the question if this is an issue for law enforcement. Furthermore, if the NBA declares a certain player is ineligible because he was caught with illegal substances, should law enforcement have the right to inflict further fines upon the individual because he violated state laws as well as work ones?

Sure, in America we give athletes all the preferential treatment, but shouldn’t something change?  It is understood that multi-national businesses with billions of dollars tied to athletes don’t want to see them spend half of a month (several of the teams oh so important games) tied up in legal battles, but where does the autocratic authority of a business end? For goodness’ sake, Donte’ Stallworth can drive drunk, kill a man, and only spend a 30-day sentence for it because of a “confidential financial settlement.” He was an athlete who could pay and, voila, he was out. It seems that athletes (and I’m not saying all, just the one’s that break the law) have been given longer and longer leashes of what is permissible and how to bend the law as of late.

Where does it end? And where do our nations laws begin?

The slight accosting that Sanders received from the NBA is like a one-day Xbox ban for a regular teenager. Even then it didn’t hurt the team. The Milwaukee Bucks, at 14-63, have the worst record in the NBA were eliminated from playoff contention seemingly in the preseason. If this was a star player on a team competing with the Heat or Spurs for the top seed in either conference, would the NBA have announced it’s findings? Would they have suspended the player? If so, for five whole, crucial games for a team like one that is competing? What happens when it’s not a low-level NBA underling on the league’s worst franchise?

Larry Sanders today might be a microcosm, but we have seen other lenience pledged towards athletes within the law, the punishment from the league has no real implications.

It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t professional athletes have as much accountability as the rest of us?



One thought on “Smoked Out: Larry Sanders, Marijuana, and the NBA

  1. Pingback: 100 Weeks of “Purely For Sport” |

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