Sha’Carri Richardson stands in the corner of a grey-and-white room. She wears a black hoodie by Nike, her sponsor since the 21-year-old athlete turned pro, in June 2019, when she ran 10.75 seconds for 100 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas. Her time broke the NCAA record of 10.78, set in 1989 by Dawn Sowell, and the World Junior record of 10.88, set in 1977 by Marlies Göhr of East Germany.
Richardson is on the Today Show, but not to talk about her athletic achievements. It’s Friday, July 2, moments after the USATF announced Richardson’s 30-day suspension for testing positive for THC at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where she ran an electrifying 10.86 in the 100m final.
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The suspension means she won’t get to race the 100m at the Olympic Games in Tokyo later this month, and Today offered her a chance to say her piece. It’s the only media interview Richardson has given on the matter, but her remarks have been picked up by outlets from ESPN to the New York Times.
She’s sorry, she says, for consuming marijuana, which is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. She knows what she did, she says, and she knows what she’s supposed to do. She was triggered, she says, by a reporter she’d never met before informing her that her biological mother had died. She says she turned to marijuana as a way to cope. She says she regrets that she couldn’t control her emotions.
The USATF posted a statement on Twitter and Instagram: “Athlete health and well-being continue to be one of USATF’s most critical priorities and we will work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future,” it read.
The reaction was swift. Twitter exploded. A Robin Williams bit from 2002 about the WADA ban on marijuana resurfaced: “Marijuana enhances many things—colors, tastes, sensations—but you are certainly not f***ing empowered,” he says in the clip, to raucous applause. “When you’re stoned, you’re lucky if you can find your own goddamn feet.” By Saturday afternoon, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had weighed in on Twitter, denouncing the suspension as “rooted solely in the systemic racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.” That evening, President Joe Biden made a statement of his own: “The rules are the rules,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sha’Carri Richardson has kept quiet. I reached out to her agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, to request an interview. He declined on Richardson’s behalf, noting that her statement on the Today Show explained “how and why we’re in this place.” He said he’s “advised Sha’Carri to take some time to heal from this traumatic experience.” I replied that I understood, and that I hope this will spur serious reevaluation of the ban on marijuana. “Me too,” he said.
I will not deign to speak for Sha’Carri Richardson, nor will I speculate on what about this experience, for her, has been traumatic. But her situation makes it very clear the rules are outdated.
WADA was established in November 1999, five months before Sha’Carri Richardson was born. Its list of banned substances has been adopted by national athletics associations worldwide, including the USADA and the International Olympic Committee. Meanwhile, the NFL, the NHL, and MLB have all ended any penalties for marijuana use. In a 2011 report, published in Sports Medicine, WADA defended its ban on the grounds that, 1) marijuana might be performance enhancing in some sports, and 2) athletes are role models for young people. It also stated that marijuana slows “reaction times,” “decreases coordination,” and impairs “psychomotor activity.”
You don’t have to be stoned for that to make your head spin: Is THC banned because of unproven, speculative benefits on an athlete’s ability, despite also, paradoxically, turning the athlete into jello? Or is it banned because its use is not befitting of a role model for young people?
Rather than consider its “findings” in relation to individual sports, WADA has applied the THC ban across the board. In so doing, it appears to have skirted the need to justify it with respect to any sport, and can thereby assert its moralistic mandate unchecked. WADA even concedes that the ban is upheld primarily because marijuana is widely abused in society outside the context of sport; never mind that the same can be said of alcohol and tobacco, neither of which is on the banned substances list.
Sha’Carri Richardson came of age in the 2010s, as one state after another began legalizing marijuana. She grew up amid a national reckoning with marijuana laws as antiquated and intrinsically racist. In her home state of Texas, Black people are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, according to a 2020 study by the ACLU. Some are serving life sentences for it. In Oregon, where Richardson tested positive last month, recreational marijuana has been legal since 2014. According to federal data about 118 million people in the U.S. have tried marijuana, and 24 million are frequent users. Are they all morally flawed or mentally unwell?
This all comes at one of the most intense moments in an athlete’s life. On Saturday afternoon, I ran into Matthew Centrowitz, who won gold in the 1500 meters at the 2016 Olympics, in a supermarket parking lot in Park City, Utah. He’d just finished second in the 1500 meters at the Trials, .07 of a second behind Cole Hocker. I congratulated him and asked how he felt about his race. He laughed and said the Trials feels even more intense than the Olympics, because everyone’s trying to get a spot on the Olympic team. “The Olympics are just, you know, the Olympics,” he said.
Sha’Carri Richardson, at age 21, earned not only a spot on the Olympic team, but the top spot. And she did it without the use of any drug scientifically proven to enhance performance. “It will never be a steroid attached to the name Sha’Carri Richardson,” she said on the Today Show. “Everything I do comes naturally. No steroid, no anything. This incident was about marijuana.”
Yes, rules are rules. But President Biden also said that whether this one should remain a rule is another matter. Now would be a good time for WADA, USADA, and the USATF to have that conversation. And while they’re at it, perhaps those organizations should also think about why a 21-year-old Black woman who just lost her mother felt the need to go on national television and say she’s sorry for not being able to control her emotions.
Breaking a rule is a choice, sure. But so is gaslighting someone into thinking she did it because there’s something wrong with her.
Update: A description in the first paragraph of Richardson’s appearance has been removed.
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