Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and some other NFL owners want to change the way the league punishes players for marijuana. So do the players. But if the talk is about doing away with marijuana testing completely, it may surprise you to learn that the players' position is "not so fast."
Yes, the players would like to change the league's policy on marijuana, but they don't want to do away with it entirely, because they think the policy can be helpful to them if done the right way.
Jones and his fellow owners see this as a valuable potential bargaining chip in the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations, which could be coming sooner than you think.
The location of the common ground these two sides end up finding could have a major impact on the health of the game and its players. And the process of finding that common ground could begin within the next few weeks. But before we can predict what may or may not happen, it's important to examine the motivations of the people on both sides of the issue.
>What the owners want
The league -- defined here as Jones and his 31 fellow team owners -- has made it clear that it wants to extend the current CBA, which runs through 2020. Sources on both sides expect the league to approach the National Football League Players Association within the coming weeks about opening collective bargaining talks aimed at such an extension.
From Jones' perspective, the marijuana issue has two key prongs: He doesn't want to lose his players for long stretches at a time because of drug suspensions, and he views marijuana as an issue around which the players would be willing to negotiate. Surely, Jones' fellow owners share the former sentiment and the latter hope.
What the players want
According to sources, this topic was discussed extensively at the NFLPA's rep meeting in Arizona last month, and union leaders prepared a proposal for a revised marijuana policy and submitted it to the player reps for review. At this time, the player reps and their teammates are reviewing the policy before submitting it to the league for discussion.
Sources with knowledge of what was discussed at the rep meeting say the players' new proposal is focused on counseling, treatment and pain management. The players don't necessarily want to do away with marijuana testing; they just want to reduce or eliminate the punitive aspect of the testing process.
Under the union's plan, the purpose of a marijuana testing program would be to identify players in need of help. Their position is that it's easy to tell the difference, based on the number of nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) that show up in a test, whether the player is using the drug for recreational use or using it excessively.
Right now, the NFL standard for a positive marijuana test is 35 ng/ml, which is higher than the 15 it was before the drug policy was renegotiated three years ago but still lower than Major League Baseball's 50 and far lower than the Olympics' 150. So a player could test positive at 35 ng/ml and still get the same level of punishment as one who tests positive at 100 ng/ml.
The union's position is that those cases need to be handled differently in substantive ways. For example: Should someone test positive above 100 ng/ml, that could be a red flag for an addiction situation or a player who's dealing with some sort of chronic pain that he hasn't previously reported. In a case like that, testing could lead the team and/or league to provide some sort of treatment for the addiction or the pain.
The important takeaway here is that NFL players don't necessarily want the league to stop testing them for marijuana. The union's proposal basically says, "Let's still test for it, but let's do it in a constructive and less punitive way."
So, what happens now?
There are a lot of hurdles yet to be cleared. The drug still isn't legal in every state, and it's against the law to transport it across state lines. The NFL itself doesn't have a defined position on this, and when asked about it, commissioner Roger Goodell usually says something about deferring to medical experts.
As mentioned earlier, players are currently reviewing the proposal that union leadership drafted last month. The union will not submit the proposal to the league until it's been vetted by its membership. Depending on the timing of that submission, the marijuana discussion could be its own separate thing or part of a larger CBA negotiation.
Regardless, it's highly unlikely the union will agree to a relaxation of the marijuana policy in exchange for some financial-based CBA concession like stadium credits. Union officials have made it clear for months that they have no interest in granting financial concessions in exchange for nonfinancial ones in any upcoming CBA talks. So if the only reason owners want to talk marijuana is because they think it's important enough to the players to give back some money, they may not find that door wide open to them.
What's clear is that this is an issue that's not leaving the spotlight anytime soon. But it's not an issue that breaks down along lines as simple as you -- or even Jerry Jones -- might expect.