Gander, meet goose: cannabis and football

Cannabis isn’t nearly as bad for your brain as football. Should we criminalize football?

Question for David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, Joe Scarborough, and other opponents of cannabis legalization:

It seems likely that very heavy cannabis use starting in adolescence and continuing for many years can lead to measurable decreases in some cognitive abilities. It is possible that occasional use might also cause damage, but right now there’s no strong evidence to back that claim.

On the other hand, it is certain that participation in high school and college football leads predictably to brain damage.

So: If cognitive harm from cannabis is a good reason to support continued criminalization, would you support a ban on high school and college football? And if not, why not?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

32 thoughts on “Gander, meet goose: cannabis and football”

  1. although the provenance of the following statement is difficult to trace, the earliest attribution is a reference to english football(soccer), and i’ve found at least a few examples of people from indiana saying the same type of thing about basketball, it remains the iconic sentiment about football in many parts of the country and it helps explains why it would never occur to brooks to consider football in the context in which you have placed it. i certainly heard many adults saying things like it when i grew up in small town texas in the 60s and 70s–

    some people think football is a matter of life and death but we know that it’s more important than that.

  2. I believe the Scarborough is Joe not David, as in MSNBC “Morning Joe”, the slimy right wing miscreant talking head.

    I do believe you have a point about the brain damage in football in college and high school. I don’t really believe anyone would knowingly signup for dementia and the like, just for a chance to play. There are those who seek a magic technical solution, like improve helmets, without appreciating that the helmet is basically useless against this type of damage, and may in ways contribute to behaviors that worsen it. There are a lot of folks making a ton of money off the gladiators, and only at the pro level does any of that start leaking through to the players.

    1. I remember a former boxer talking about the merits of protective headgear for the sweet sport. He said something like, “If your could open up the top of a man’s head, take out his brain, put it in the helmet, and then put it back in his head, then you’d have something.” Same goes for football.

      (Brains aside, how about knees? Football eats them for lunch.)

      If football was a consumer appliance it would be recalled for danger to the operator. It’s also a scam. Every young football player dreams of going to the pros, but it’s like the lottery – near zero chance. Even if he gets there, the average career of a pro ball player is 3 years, usually ended by injury. So here we have a sport that threatens the cognitive abilities of participants as well as their future mobility, teasing them with the pro ball lottery, when the winners of that lottery face a short career followed by probable long term disability.

      I went to a rural Vermont high school with a winning football team that had brand new equipment. We had textbooks held together with duct tape. Yes, we should outlaw the use of public funds for football programs. If enthusiastic parents want to donate money or hold bake sales in order to offer their sons a life lived with brain damage, fine.

  3. On the other hand, it is certain that participation in high school and college football leads predictably to brain damage.

    True! But football involves discipline and pain and suffering and thus builds character, *obviously* showing how football players with brain damage can cope better than stoners with lowered IQs, because the stoners merely had FUN. And fun is BAD.

    [‘Also, the stoners had less hair on their chests.’]

  4. Football is worth hundreds of millions of dollars at college level and above, with large corporations having made investments in its future, creating a responsibility of all of us towards the stockholders of these corporations. It is therefore not to be molested.

    Executives at High Times Growth Fund, a venture capital private equity fund, are planning to bring $100 million to Colorado’ newest growth industry. One other aspect of legalization at the state level is that marijuana stores cannot have bank accounts or SBA loans due to the violation of federal laws, and this attracts other forms of capital to help them grow. Perhaps changes in federal law are a part of any equation to keep Big Weed from taking over the industry altogether; I would be interested in input from someone who knows something about the issues involved in financing the industry, which is currently cash only.

    1. Interesting discussion in these parts about how financing would come into the state when the feds threatened the banks. I look forward to seeing how this plays out – especially with the potential hassles businesses are going to have, making certainty much lower than a typical business, like, say, food truck.

  5. They need to also justify why football should be legal for adults. That would be more consistent with the beliefs of the opponents of cannabis legalization. I mean if we allow adults to play such a dangerous sport what message does that send to the kids?

    1. …what message does that send to the CHILDREN? It’s always got to be “the children”. It puts that little bit of serious pathos spin to it, yasee.

  6. The answer to your question is that football is foundational and sacred because it is ritualized sadism.

    Your question is addressed (in your usual precious manner) to a committee of cardboard cutouts, who would not however answer it forthrightly, even if they were incarnate: because to do so would be a mark of respect to you and they are emotionally incapable of that.

  7. Football tests my libertarianism in the extreme. I say this is a red-blooded American who grew up watching the Super Bowl every year, which I still do, and otherwise enjoying what has become “America’s Sport.” (It’s America’s Sport because we watch it on our fat asses, eating french onion dip, while other overweight men do the running, and the hitting, and the sweating.)

    But if you look closely at the evidence on Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy you can see that pro football is, at best, Russian Roulette if not slow-motion suicide. I really think it’s awful, albeit highly entertaining. Maybe the most awful thing about it is that the facts about what it does to otherwise healthy bodies and brains are well-known and to raise questions about the unnecessary suffering is to invite suggestions that you are a wimp and a scold.

    If there were a political proposal to ban NFL football, I would have to bite the bullet and support it. Any of my fellow libertarian anti-paternalists can revoke my decoder ring whenever they wish; I also promise to cease-and-desist with the secret handshake.

    As for marijuana, I think the way to fight problem usage is though both public and private efforts. Let public health officials administer Portugal-style free counseling to overusers and let ad gurus run PSAs that publicize the word about potential negative consequences of marijuana and the availability of free help. The first line of defense, of course, is good parenting. Parents have a lot of hard jobs and some are analogous to this one, e.g., teaching your kid about sex and warning them off of alcohol. Let parents explain that under-18s are suppressing their potential (and possibly doing lasting physical harm to themselves) when they smoke pot.

    tl;dr – The problem is not all pot use; it’s irresponsible pot use.

    1. It might be enough if it stopped being subsidized and promoted by government. No public funding for stadiums, no football programs at public schools – including state universities.

      Then if grown men want to organize leagues, build stadiums, and so on let them. But they pay for the stadium and don’t get the benefit of free “minor league” training.

      I don’t see how that could offend libertarian sensibilities.

      1. This is an excellent point. Fun fact about state support for football: In something like 47 states out of 50, the highest-paid public employee is the head coach of the state’s flagship university. The taxes of waitresses and truck-drivers and teachers and nurses pay for that. Is that fair?

        The public funding of stadiums is another travesty. NFL commissioner makes $29 million per year, even without risking brain trauma. If one of his league’s teams needs a new stadium, let him contribute the first $5 million. Then he can ask the taxpayers.

        Final point: children are placed into Pop Warner tackle football leagues. This is a travesty. It should be illegal.

        1. This is an excellent point. Fun fact about state support for football: In something like 47 states out of 50, the highest-paid public employee is the head coach of the state’s flagship university.

          You’re exaggerating, but not by a whole lot.

          According to this chart, it’s forty out of fifty where the highest paid state employee is the head coach, either football (27) or basketball (13). The article also says that some hockey coach came on top in his state, but I can’t seem to find it on the map.

      2. Another libertarian thing we could do for private school football is to pay the players their market value. In cash, not cars and hoses.

  8. P.S. – An excellent book about the truly grotesque harm that NFL football visits upon almost all of its players is the recently-released instant classic Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson.

  9. I haven’t heard if this is happening elsewhere, but it’s been all over the news lately that our local Chiefs organization is being sued by a bevy of former players, including hall-of-famers, over handling of head injuries. Is this common across the league? Will this spell trouble for the league, or will they find another way to get taxpayers to subsidize these new expenses?

    1. I haven’t read about that. Is it outside of the recent NFL settlement with former players?

      1. Yeah, my understanding is that they’re going after the team. Haven’t followed closely enough to provide much detail, but I’ve noticed the story popping up on the TV news lately (which I don’t usually pay close attention to unless the weather is on).

    2. No doubt this crisis will be met with tort reform legislation to limit damages to spit. It will be the new Tea Party cause celebre.

  10. Boxing gloves made that sport dangerous as it encouraged blows to the head which a bare-knuckle fighter would avoid to protect his hands. Is the same effect at work in American football? Anecdotally, rugby looks a lot less dangerous to the brain, though I don’t suppose it’s harmless. If that’s so, you could keep most of the rules and ban the armour.

    1. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that rugby isn’t much safer. One of the striking things about the data collected so far is that a large accumulation of sub-concussive blows to the head that don’t produce concussion symptoms may be more dangerous than a much smaller number of hits that produce serious concussions. The lack of armor does a lot less to prevent the action of this sort in the scrum.

      The features of rugby that would probably make a bigger difference is the relative lack of substitutions and the more continuous play. Because of these endurance is a more important attribute than it is in American football. If you forced football players, and especially the massive linemen, to stay in motion for longer periods with fewer breaks between plays they couldn’t be as large or as fast as they are now without collapsing from exhaustion. As a consequence they wouldn’t have as much energy or momentum when they collide.

      How you would do that within the rules of football is a more difficult question.

  11. But football doesn’t have all the collateral crimes associated with it that the illegal marijuana trade does. Well, not if you leave out the money laundering and the gambling and the sexual assaults and the “performance-enhancing” drugs…

  12. Mark, I have no idea why, as I am not usually prone to optimism, but for some reason I do believe that eventually, and maybe sooner than that, we will see some kind of football reform. Flag football, f.e. I’m not sure I’d bet on it, but with good evidence, people will eventually realize that the risk to their kids is too high given the tiny chance of making the NFL. And once that happens, the money people will back change so their golden goose isn’t cooked. It’s a theory, anyway.

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