Pro Sports: Saying 'Yes' to Brain Injuries, 'No' to Weed

Athletes sign up for physical trauma; why not smoke?

In early September, the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended UFC fighter Nick Diaz for five years and levied a fine against him equal to 33 percent of the UFC 183 headliner’s $500,000 purse. The reason: Diaz tested positive for marijuana after his bout with Anderson Silva back in January.

Check your calendar. It will clearly indicate that the year is 2015.

Still, within today’s realm of current events, a grown adult is being forced to take a half-decade off of work and pay $165,000 because that adult decided to use cannabis.

September’s positive test was the third time in Diaz’s career that he’s been flagged for harboring marijuana residue. That a UFC fighter’s vestigial levels of weed are even typed onto an official form is what any reasoned observer would call plain bat-shit crazy. The UFC drug tests are implemented to catch athletes using performance-enhancing drugs—many of which are illegal.

Marijuana is not generally listed among performance enhancing substances. On top of that, Diaz—who was subjected to three different drug tests on the night of his match against Silva—holds a medical marijuana card in California, indicating that his weed consumption was most likely state sanctioned.

The argument for banning steroids is that these chemicals come with long-term health risks. But simple participation in the UFC entails long-term health risks.

In August, Diaz’s opponent, Anderson Silva, tested positive for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid, and androstane, another steroid banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The Brazilian fighter received a one-year suspension, one-fifth the duration of Diaz’s penalty. You don’t need the irony police to point out the insane contrast in these two UFC fighters’ punishments.

Marijuana is rapidly becoming accepted by our mainstream culture, but not by the governing bodies of our professional sports cultures. The strong argument for banning steroids in organized games is that these chemicals come with long-term health risks. But simple participation in the UFC entails long-term health risk for its athletes.

UFC fighters don’t wear protective headgear, and the combatants are particularly susceptible to head injuries. The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that 31.9 percent of UFC fights end with one fighter suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

The TBI rate among UFC fighters is high even in comparison to other contact sports, but the UFC is not alone in being hazardous to the health of its participants. When an athlete chooses to suit up and play professional football, for instance, it’s with a presumed awareness of the dangers inherent to that sport.

Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University published a study in September indicating that 87 out of 91 former NFL players tested positive for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that, if you’re able to think about it, is far more harmful to quality of life than any presumed long-term marijuana impact.

To put things into even sharper perspective, let’s look at a few more professional athletes who’ve been penalized for cannabis use. Then we’ll follow up the cannabis infraction with a summation of the health risks these adults are accepting by participating in their chosen sports.

In the MLB rulebooks, cannabis is as great a danger as two grown men slamming their unprotected skulls into one another.

*In July, New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson was suspended without pay for the first four games because he tested positive for marijuana. In contrast, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on camera punching his girlfriend in the face, and the NFL initially hit him with a two-game suspension.

LONG TERM FOOTBALL HEALTH RISKS: Concussions and traumatic brain injuries among football players have been cited as a major cause of player suicides, memory loss, depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

* In 2014, former Yankee Alfredo Aceves was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for marijuana. The Yankees later dropped him from the team.

LONG TERM BASEBALL HEALTH RISKS: Though not as common as in football, concussions are still a relevant risk in baseball. To limit the potential for head injuries, Major League Baseball moved to ban home plate collisions. Apparently, in the MLB rulebooks, cannabis is as great a danger as two grown men slamming their unprotected skulls into one another.

*In January, Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks was suspended without pay for 10 games for violating the NBA's anti-drug program. Sanders also missed the final five games of the 2013-14 season for using marijuana.

LONG TERM EFFECTS: Basketball accounts for nearly half of all sports-related mouth injuries; it is the leading cause of sports-related eye injuries.

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It’s an open secret that many MMA fighters and football players find relief from the brutal side effects of their sports with cannabis. Medical marijuana is now legally obtained and consumed in 23 states.

How many more states must go legal before the governing bodies of America’s professional sports leagues loosen the leash on athletes who make the adult, informed choice to improve their quality of life with marijuana?