In 2004, Ricky Williams retired from the NFL for the first time after failing his third NFL-mandated drug test in five seasons.
He never imagined that, more than a decade later, he would be touring the country as an unofficial marijuana expert.
Williams’ reputation has since transformed with the rise of legal medicinal and recreational marijuana use. The former star running back has embraced the drug that tarnished his NFL public image and cost him millions in salary, per his estimate.
The former NFL star running back, who said he speaks at between six and 10 marijuana conventions per year across the country, was part of an athlete’s panel at the World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo Saturday, which was held at the David L. Lawrence Center.
“The word medical marijuana didn’t exist [in 2004],” Williams told the Post-Gazette before addressing a crowd of a few hundred people at the panel. “People talking about health and cannabis, it didn’t exist. And now that it does, players can be educated on what are the possible side effects, how does this work, and how to use it in ways that are going to be most productive.”
Williams has become a public advocate for marijuana use in the NFL as a way of treating pain and concussions. As a player, Williams preferred cannabis to the various drugs doctors would prescribe to players in pain or recovering from surgery — painkillers such as Advil, Toradol and Indocin.
The NFL has a noted pill problem. A 2011 study by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that, in a survey of 644 retired NFL players, 71 percent said they misused painkillers while in the NFL.
“Seems like guys that were hurt always had a surplus of pain pills,” Williams said. “For me, I would take pain pills sometimes after a game if I was beat up. But very rarely. The big thing was people taking Toradol and Indocin, which are strong anti-inflamatory’s. And that’s what alarmed me because I realized early in my career, even early I couldn’t practice without popping Advil all the time. Gave me an ulcer in college. And then I got to the NFL and realized, ‘OK, I’m in pain all the time.’ ”
The NFL’s drug policy will be a point of contention for the NFL Player’s Association with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in 2020. Williams said the NFLPA will propose the issue of marijuana use from a health standpoint, and that use of the drug shouldn’t be treated as substance abuse.
Williams added that if marijuana use is a health issue, it shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip in CBA negotiations.
“If it’s a health issue, it shouldn’t be a CBA issue,” Williams said. “For example, we didn’t need the CBA to deal with having a concussion specialist on the field. Owners tried to make it an issue and tried to fight that way, but the player’s union is taking the stance that this is a health issue, this isn’t a bargaining issue. We don’t bargain with players’ health.”
With his NFL career behind him, Williams is enjoying his new phase of life. He finished his Bachelor’s degree in Educational Psychology at the University of Texas last December, and recently enrolled in at the Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica, Calif., where he is studying a Master’s program in Oriental Medicine.
Williams is encouraged by the country’s growing acceptance of marijuana use. Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana last year, and as more states legalize the drug, Williams believes it will put more pressure on the NFL.
“I think more people see it as ‘oh, maybe it’s not as bad as what we thought,’ ” he said. “It opened the door to more people being honest with their cannabis use and more people seeing that ‘oh, maybe what we were taught or what we heard about isn’t true.’ ”