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Keith Strudler: Rules Are Rules

To steal a phrase from Virginia Slims, marijuana has come a long way, baby. Once the focus of scare propaganda films for teenagers or the joke of nearly every Cheech and Chong movie, it’s now the core of dozens of new laws and the foundation of an entire legal economy. It’s kind of like the chicken sandwich. Once an afterthought, now America’s favorite. And now, it seems the humble joint may be star of the 2021 Summer Olympic Games. Only not in a good way. While the substance is increasingly legal across the United States, it’s still very much a banned substance for most elite sports, including the Olympic Games and sports within.

Which is why Sha'Carri Richardson, the fastest 100-meter female athlete in the world, will not be representing the US at the upcoming Games in Tokyo despite the fact that she handily won the 100-meter US trials in Oregon last month. That’s because, and you probably know this, Richardson tested positive for a chemical found in marijuana after her victory, which nullified her win and added a 30-day ban on competition. Unlike a lot of these cases, Richardson admitted the transgression, citing the stress of the trials and the death of her biological mother as the reason. So regardless of where you stand on this case, you cannot help but truly admire Richardson’s honesty during what has to be a very disappointing moment.

This removal from the team created a whole lot of buzz really fast, for all the obvious reasons – starting with the fact that Richardson is a generational athlete with the personality and bombast to match. Meaning removing her from the Games potentially robs us all of the next great Olympic star. Also, as much as people cling to ideals of fairness and integrity in elite sports, increasingly few see marijuana the same way they do, say, steroids. It certainly doesn’t seem like it enhances performance, even if it might take the edge off. And especially as the drug moves from backroom to bourgeois, it feels odd that it might be the cause of an Olympic catastrophe.

That said, the US Olympic Committee has spoken, and it will stick to the rules and its original decision – all guided by the World Anti-Doping Agency. And USA Track and Field has chosen not to add Richardson to the 4 x 100 relay team, something they could have done despite the infraction – although it’s really a red herring and likely not a position Richardson wanted anyway. It’s like Tom Brady taking a special teams spot on a football roster so he could get another Super Bowl ring.

There is clearly a whole lot to unwrap here, even if the decision is fairly straightforward. First, let’s not confuse illegal with banned or performance enhancing. There’s a lot of stuff that athletes can’t take that is completely legal, including substances that help your run faster and train harder. Second, there’s a whole lot to question about the list of banned substances. Trying to maintain a coherent list is about as simple as building an atom bomb. And because the Olympics proclaims a higher moral code, this list includes substances that either pose health risks or violate the spirit of sport. And yes, you can find all the hypocrisy you’d like in that premise. And perhaps more than anything, it’s hard not to feel for Richardson. Beyond her clear talents, her hard work, and her refreshing honesty, it’s fairly heartbreaking to see someone denied an opportunity they’ve earned for an infraction most of us don’t thing belongs in the first place.

So what’s the answer? Well, it certainly doesn’t seem to be found in the dogma of some of those who argue either side with unwavering certainty. I find it nearly impossible not to see the grey in this matter. You can choose almost any metaphor you’d like – slippery slope, common sense legislation, and so on – but no matter what you do, neither decision is as simple as you think. In the end, I tend to agree with President Biden when he said, with clear sadness, “rules are rules” – but also noted it might be time to change them. That, perhaps more than anything, seems like a reasoned, if still tragic perspective.

Which means that Sha'Carri Richardson, perhaps the most dynamic track and field athlete in the world, will see the Olympics like the rest of us – on TV. And that when it comes to logical policy around marijuana and sport, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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