Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is a professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
The initial news that US breakout star sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson had tested positive for use of an illegal substance sent sports Twitter into a frenzy. Was it steroids? Devil’s Playground?
It turns out, as the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced Friday, Richardson tested positive for something far more relatable to many folks: Carboxy-THC, a chemical found in marijuana.
She with the streaming orange hair, fiery kick and a bag of emotions that she wears on her sleeve (or, rather, tatted arms) looked to be a headliner for Team USA at the Olympics in Tokyo. Beyond the gold medal that she had a hot chance to grab, she was the kind of star we haven’t seen since the days of Florence Griffith-Joyner – fast as lightning and with style and personality to match.
That marijuana is a banned substance in sports seemed to take many by surprise – and prompted some anger. How could a sprinter gain an unfair advantage using a substance known to bring about a sense of relaxation? “If you can run that fast with weed in your system,” one outraged fan tweeted, “you ought to get TWO medals even before the Olympics start,” while another quipped, “Marijuana is not a performance enhancing drug unless you’re in a pie eating contest.”
Also perplexing in the case of Richardson is that the substance she tested positive for is legal in the state, Oregon, where she used it. In the United States, professional leagues, including the NBA and the NFL, have relaxed and/or eradicated testing for marijuana, and while it remains illegal on the federal level, its recreational use is allowed in 18 states and counting. What does that mean for sports, since about half of the professional teams in this country play in states that allow the regulated sale of cannabis products?
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) says it labels marijuana as a banned substance because it “[poses a health risk to athletes, has the potential to enhance performance, and violates the spirit of sport.” Which means, yes, Richardson broke the rules. She tested positive and she has accepted the consequences – she is owning her mistake. But at what cost? Are the rules just? Are they even logical?
The criminalization of marijuana has been a central component to the deeply embedded inequities of the carceral state in America, policing Black and brown bodies and the communities they live in while exploding the for-profit prison industry. So, while Richardson – who has taken responsibility for her actions and apologized in an interview with NBC’s Today Show to her family, fans and sponsors – might be guilty of a bad decision made just before a big race, the bigger picture of the legacy of America’s so-called war on drugs should also be under the microscope.
Also suspect is WADA’s claim over concern for the health of athletes, in addition to its worry about unfair advantage. While the damage caused by the use of anabolic steroids is well documented – liver damage, hypertension, violent mood swings and lower sperm count in men – marijuana has known benefits when it comes to chronic pain. Richardson’s reveal about her mental state during the Olympic trials should also be considered. She had a rough run in the days leading up to the 100-meter at the trials, when a reporter blindsided her with the information that her biological mother had died, sending her into what she called an “emotional panic.”
While tennis player Naomi Osaka walked away from the French Open in May – and now Wimbledon this month – to try to focus on and safeguard her mental health, Richardson stayed in the game, coping as best she could. In its official statement about the suspension, USA Track and Field promised to “work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”
Let’s hold them to that. Because if part of these tangled and complicated doping rules in sports is really about taking care of the athlete, then let’s take care of Sha-Carri Richardson. Because with her suspension, the US has not just lost the potential for a gold medal in a marquee event in Tokyo. It has lost a new star, one who created a moment for the ages when she sprinted into the stands to hug her beloved grandmother, and one who tweeted out a rainbow and had everyone buzzing about thanking her girlfriend – whatever that might mean to her (and she will tell us if and when she wants to) – for choosing her now iconic hair color.
So now it is on Team USA to decide to name her to the team, as she would have an opportunity to run in the 4x100m relay after her suspension is over – otherwise known as doing the right thing. And we can always use a little bit more of that in sports.