Larry Sanders, NBA athlete and black man in America, believes in marijuana. Or at least he used to. Those were his words at the end of last season, after he failed a league drug test for the third time in his career, resulting in a mandatory five-game suspension.
“It’s something I feel strongly about, just to let you know something personal about me,” Sanders told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the paper of record for the city in which he plays. “I will deal with the consequences from it. It’s a banned substance in my league. But I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it.”
This moment of insight found, no less, in the mundanity of a sport scrum, was raw and visceral and unique in that way, but it also made Sanders an easy target. His volunteered frankness could be re-packaged for another purpose: to fill the narrative of the fallen athlete and the deviant thug. Earlier this month, Sanders failed another drug test.
An athlete who smokes weed doesn’t have an advantage over their peers. A basketball player wearing gold chains doesn’t alter the league’s history, or obscure its path to the future.
The news broke, as it usually does in the basketball world, through Yahoo! Sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski. The headline: “Larry Sanders Determined to End Marijuana Use, Resume NBA Career.” The opening graf noted that Sanders would use his time away from basketball—this time a 10-game suspension—to “deal with his core personal issues and learn to live without marijuana.”
Sanders’ case is unique. He is a gifted athlete, nearly seven feet tall and athletic enough to use his long, loping frame for the purpose of controlled chaos. His limbs flashing in front of the basket, like the radial arms of a blinking sun, reaching over other bodies, smashing jump-shots back down to earth.
He is 26-years-old and his play this season has mostly been overshadowed by hand-wringing about his desire and dedication to the game. On occasion he is mirthless, appearing to be out on the court simply because of his rare physical traits, rather than any inherent want or desire to be a professional basketball player. He isn’t the first to face this type of accusation.
The presentation of Sanders as a volatile and vexing player reveals little about who he is as a person and a young man but it’s consistent with the social discourse on black athletes that break the rules—and in turn bend the guidelines of appearance.
The spring 2012 issue of the Journal of Sports Media included a study analyzing the news coverage of athletes and marijuana use. It concluded that the race of the athlete at the center of a story shapes the language and framing of the conversation.
The journal article focused largely on Michael Phelps, and the February 2009 incident where photos emerged of the Olympic swimmer smoking marijuana from a water pipe. He didn’t go unpunished, receiving a three-month ban from USA Swimming and torpedoing an endorsement deal with the Kellogg Corporation, but the mediated response was largely one of forgiveness.
Phelps was depicted as a boy wonder who suffered a momentary lapse of judgment, perhaps due to his youthful innocence and exuberance. Rarely was his previous conviction, of driving under the influence, raised. His past was largely kept out of the conversation, and his public image, gleaming brightly before the arrest, while momentarily dirtied, was left mostly intact.
An ESPN headline at the time asked “Does the Embattled Michael Phelps Deserve a Break?” The answer, of course, was yes, as it would be for most anyone in that situation. Phelps was 23 years old at the time and photographed at a college party but the question is, in itself, a point of privilege. This is not a question that has been offered to Larry Sanders, nor was it presented to football star Ricky Williams, or to basketball player Josh Howard. Their mistakes, committing the same crime, were treated as glaring infractions, demanding of swift recourse.
This past September, Phelps was arrested again, charged a second time with driving under the influence.
Charles Oakley, a 19-year NBA veteran, who played most notably for the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, and Toronto Raptors, told the New York Post in a 2001 interview that 60 percent of the NBA smokes weed regularly. As with most legal matters in the world of celebrity, there is a certain degree of privileged normalization. Sometimes, in some spaces, for some people, the law is more of a suggestion. Willie Nelson smoking a joint, for example, is interpreted as a symbol of freedom and expression and counterculture; for young black musicians the same act is often construed as glorifying criminality.
In 1998 Brad Miller, a white center playing for the Chicago Bulls, failed a drug test for the third time in his career. He was subsequently suspended but his story never reached the front pages of any national sports section. There was no mention of his previously failed tests. There was no think piece penned, no discussion of deviant athletes. If you wanted to know the reason behind Miller’s suspension you had to actively search it out.
"In this contested terrain African Americans are resisting white male hegemony and asserting their manhood and cultural identity."
Just three months prior to that, NBA player Josh Howard, while on a Dallas ESPN radio show, admitting to smoking pot in the off season. He called it a personal choice, stating that it didn’t affect his job. Besides, Howard continued, “everybody in the media world and in the sports world knows that NBA players do smoke marijuana.”
It would be the last notable season for Howard, whose career sputtered out in the years following. He defended his position using the same logic as Miller: marijuana helped them to recuperate from the mental stress and physical grind of being a pro athlete. Howard made brief stops in Washington, Utah, and Minnesota before fading out of the league, his reputation as a problematic player—his skill not quite good enough to warrant controversy—leading him out the door.
This is not just about Larry Sanders. It’s about the inescapable reflection of structural racism. It’s about cultural assumptions and power structures and racially charged ideologies underpinning public discussion.
It's about stereotypes being fed and re-affirmed. It’s about the political economy of scandal and the resulting public discourse. It’s about the visibility of athletes and the innocuous events, only loosely related to the game, that stretch beyond sport and into the periphery of society at large.
Why does the NBA, a league known for the looseness of its drug policy, care about marijuana? Image management is at least part of the answer. An athlete who smokes weed doesn’t have an advantage over their peers. A basketball player wearing gold chains doesn’t alter the league’s history, or obscure its path to the future. In the business of family entertainment, conformity is a requisite.
This is about white normativity and fear. It’s about a league stifling the same culture that allowed it to grow and flourish. It’s about representation and control and regulation and punishment.
In a 2003 paper titled “Race and Penalized Sports Behaviors,” University of California-Berkeley professor Herbert D. Simons wrote that sanctions in the NBA and NFL against celebration or braggadocio or urban fashion represent white male mainstream society's response to threats against white masculinity—the fear of African American athletes defining the meaning of their own behavior.
“In this contested terrain African Americans are resisting white male hegemony and asserting their manhood and cultural identity,” Simons wrote.
For Sanders, there is this added weight, the symbolic framing around drugs and the discourse of social inequality in sports. It’s up to him to decide if he wants to continue to be a pro basketball player, a decision he should be able to make freely, without repercussion or villainization. For now, Sanders remains perched at the edge the league, his future precarious. The same forces that once helped elevate his career, now pushing against his back, waiting to see if he falls.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.