Ron Cook: It's time to weed out the naivety in NFL

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Now we know why the Steelers went 8-8 in each of the past two seasons and failed to make the playoffs. We know why they were beaten by inept quarterback Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in the playoffs after the 2011 season. We know why they came up short against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

The players were on dope!

Safety Ryan Clark confirmed as much during an interview Thursday with ESPN.

OK, not exactly.

Clark merely said he knows teammates who smoke marijuana. He didn't name names and certainly didn't indicate the marijuana usage contributed to any Steelers losses. He just said NFL players smoke pot, mostly for pain relief and to ease stress.

This is breaking news?

That young men use weed?

Clark also said the NFL can't stop the players because the league's testing procedure is predictable. "It's 100 percent true. They're fighting a losing battle. The testing isn't stringent ... Guys understand the ways to get around failing a drug test."

You might imagine all of this wasn't well-received at Steelers headquarters. It's safe to say the Rooneys aren't pleased to have their team and players associated with an illegal substance, at least illegal in Pennsylvania. Marijuana use for medicinal purposes is legal in 20 states -- including Washington and Colorado, which also allow it to be used recreationally -- and the District of Columbia. The topic surged to the top of the news cycle the past few weeks because Washington and Colorado provided the two teams -- Seattle and Denver -- for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Clark has been widely criticized, especially by many here who cling to the misguided belief that their team is filled with good, clean, All-American men. I pause here to laugh. Much of that criticism, though, is fair. By incriminating some of his teammates, Clark left all open to suspicion. The next time Ben Roethlisberger throws an interception, will people wonder? The next time Antonio Brown drops a pass or Le'Veon Bell loses a fumble or Troy Polamalu gets beat for a long touchdown?

You get the idea. "Is he on dope?"

That's blatantly unfair.

Clark probably won't have to deal with any of that fallout. He's a free agent and wants to play a 13th NFL season this fall, but he is not expected to be back with the Steelers. He wasn't expected back before his comments.

Maybe more seriously, Clark's observations make you wonder where the players are getting the marijuana. They have to be buying it, on some level, from illegal drug dealers, right? Professional athletes and the criminal element always are a dangerous mix.

There's no doubt Clark would have been smarter to keep his thoughts to himself. But that's not him. He's always been outspoken and has never been afraid to give his opinions, no matter whom they might offend. I admire that. I admire anyone who has the courage to put his or her name on their beliefs.

In this case, everything Clark said was true.

A few weeks before Super Bowl XLVIII, no less than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league should consider taking marijuana off its banned substance list and allowing it for medicinal purposes. A few days before the game, Goodell backed off considerably, perhaps after being reminded by the NFL owners that marijuana still is illegal in 30 states.

"We'll continue to follow the medicine," Goodell said. "Our experts right now are not indicating that we should change our policy in any way."

Medical research seems to be trending toward legalizing marijuana, at least for medicinal purposes. There is a growing belief that the benefits of its usage for all sorts of pain relief -- including concussions, the NFL's No. 1 hot-button issue -- outweigh the risks, including possible addiction and as a gateway to more dangerous drugs. There also are finances to consider. Aren't there always? If marijuana is legalized, it can be taxed.

Look for it coming soon to a state near you.

Clark, who later tweeted that he doesn't smoke marijuana, said players are more interested in the pain benefits.

"Guys feel like, 'If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.' Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to relieve stress and also to medicate themselves for pain. Guys are still going to do it."

I have no strong feelings about the legalization of marijuana. I have never used it even though I am a product of the 1970s, when sex, drugs and rock and roll ruled the free world. I won't try it even if it is legal.

But I am for helping people deal with pain. If the research keeps going the way it's going, the legalization of marijuana could benefit many people, including a lot of football players.

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is all for that.

"I would say that we have to explore and find ways to make our game a better game and take care of our players in whatever way possible," he said last week. "Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved, we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this."

Goodell had it right in the first place. The NFL needs to monitor this issue closely. It needs to do it with an open mind.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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