Are Travis Henry and Ricky Williams SAFER One Toke Over the Line?

We have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s not just that Colorado, and Denver specifically, has some of the most liberal marijuana laws in the country. We have the best weed too. What’s a guy like Travis Henry, who already has well-documented issues with temptation, supposed to do when his buddy rolls up a blunt of Boulder’s stickiest icky? Just say no?

So it looks like the NFL’s leading rusher may be suspended for a full-season after his second violation of the league’s drug policy. If this sounds similar to the Ricky Williams case, the coincidences don’t end there; just one day before the Henry story broke, SAFER – the Colorado-based marijuana advocacy group that was the driving force behind the successful 2005 campaign to “legalize it” in the city of Denver – unveiled a billboard smack-dab across the street from Mile High Stadium with the plea “Ricky, Come to Denver…Where the people support your SAFER choice.”

On Thursday afternoon, the ad simply looked like the latest in a series of clever and controversial billboards created by SAFER for the purpose of sparking a debate about marijuana laws (and it worked, with the AP and other news outlets picking up the story). On Friday morning, it looked like a reasonable personnel suggestion.

All of which plays beautifully into the hands of Mason Tvert, Executive Director of SAFER. He admits that the billboard was originally intended primarily to draw attention to a timely marijuana issue, Ricky Williams attempted reinstatement, which was announced on Monday. “There’s a whole culture of people out there who read nothing but the sports pages,” Tvert said. “This was our attempt to reach them.”

With the billboard in eyesight of many tailgaters this Sunday – it faces north on the southwest corner of Federal and 19th, right behind the Family Dollar – he’ll certainly have their attention. And by going after the NFL’s policy of testing for marijuana, he may even get some of their support.

“Marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug for an athlete,” Tvert asserts. “It may be one for a musician or an artist, but not a football player.” With sports heroes everywhere losing their luster behind allegations or admissions of steroid use – 2000 Olympic gold medal winner Marion Jones confessed yesterday to lying about her use of banned substances - he may have a point about testing for a drug that enhances the taste of Gummie Bears, not physical aptitude.

Tvert also points out that lifting the pot ban would eliminate embarrassments like this one altogether. And in the wake of Michael Vick, the NFL certainly doesn’t need any more image problems. “This just shows how widespread [marijuana use] is in the NFL,” he says in reference to the Williams and Henry cases. Whether or not this is realistic (not), there’s no denying the NFL has been much harder on drug offenders than other sports (the NBA didn’t begin testing for weed until 1999 and only suspends players after multiple offenses).

Finally, as with all SAFER campaigns, Tvert is eager to throw an alcoholic cocktail on the fire. The comparative safety of marijuana over alcohol has always been the intellectual cornerstone of both their policy and organization, but in the realm of the NFL, this argument is particularly intriguing. "NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is probably sitting down to a glass of Chardonnay and telling his wife how he is going to punish Travis Henry for using marijuana,” Tvert says in a press release about Henry’s suspension. This may be intentionally sensationalistic, but it hints at an underlying truth; the NFL is far and away the league most closely affiliated with alcohol. This goes far beyond allowing footage from old press conferences to be edited into lame commercials for Coors Light, official beer sponsor of the National Football League. It’s the larger cultural caricature of the beer-swilling pigskin fan, to whom football and alcohol are inextricably woven. And should the Broncos go in the tank because of Henry’s suspension, expect more than a few fans to rant, as they stumble drunken and dejectedly from the stadium to the parking lot, about how he disappointed everybody – his team, his community, his family – with a stupid decision surrounding drugs.

Despite the humor and hypocrisy argued by Tvert, it’s hard to say how this Williams ad will go over with Bronco fans, who may be a bit touchy after losing arguably their most important offensive player for the entire season. Does Tvert fear any backlash?

“Fans should be angry at the policy, not the player,” he says.

The policy and those damned hippies up in Boulder. Quit growing this shit so strong, you’re ruining our season! -- Mark Schiff

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Sean Cronin