Former NBA Player Jay Williams Calls For Medical Cannabis Acceptance in Sports World

By Victoria Kim 02/10/16

In a personal essay, Williams also addresses his pain medication struggle.

Jay Williams

The use (and misuse) of pain medication is rampant in the world of pro sports. Former Chicago Bull Jay Williams is once again making his voice heard, bringing the issue to light.

In 2003, a motorcycle accident left Williams, a Duke standout and second overall draft pick by the Chicago Bulls, with severe leg damage, a fractured pelvis and damaged ligaments in his left knee, effectively ending his career.

In a short essay for the Players’ Tribune, Williams writes about recovering from the accident, both mentally and physically. He relied on pain medication to cope with his injuries. “It began innocently enough: I was in pain, so my doctors prescribed me pain medication—powerful prescription drugs including OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet,” he wrote.

But it soon got out of hand as he tried to “numb not only the physical pain, but also the emotional and psychological trauma of coming to grips with a life without basketball.” Williams suffered “vicious side effects” like frequent chest pain, irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing and swallowing, and extreme drowsiness, to name a few. “That addiction nearly killed me a second time,” he wrote.

Dependence on pain medication is a common problem in sports leagues. Athletes rely on pain medication to help cope with frequent injuries, which is part and parcel of being a professional athlete. 

Williams emphasized that we must change the way we talk about treating pain in our everyday lives, and include cannabis as an integral part of the conversation. Cannabis is gaining greater acceptance not just in the US but globally, though it is still demonized, "vilified and misunderstood," in some corners.

There is a double standard, says Williams. “The rest of the world is progressing and moving forward. And we’re seeing it become legalized in so many different states. Yet these private institutions are still archaic in their thinking,” he said in a video for the Players’ Tribune.

As a drug that is less addictive and less prone to overdose, cannabis should be considered a legitimate alternative to prescription pain medication, he said. “I worry about athletes and non-athletes falling into the same cycle of dependence on prescription opiates that I did,” he said. This would mean relaxing the steep fines and suspensions that professional athletes often face when caught using marijuana.

Williams is not the first pro athlete to come out in favor of marijuana. He is just one in a chorus of cannabis advocates, especially in the context of addressing the sports industry’s pain medication problem. A 2011 survey of 644 former NFL players by ESPN and researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis revealed that 52% of the players polled said they used prescription medication while playing the game. And 71% of those individuals said they misused drugs at the time. 

Although cannabis is still taboo overall in the world of pro sports, there is some progress being made. For example, the NCAA is allowing incremental changes to policies regarding the drug, such as reducing penalties and allowing more positive tests before players face disciplinary action.


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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr