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Texas Longhorn legend Ricky Williams reflects on cannabis, NIL, college sports reform

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell07/08/24


From back-to-back losses against UCLA and Kansas State to a breakup with his girlfriend, Ricky Williams’ senior season at Texas was off to a nightmarish start in September 1998.

Then his roommate said, “Hey, try some of this.” 

Williams took a hit from his bong – which was when the former 11-year NFL running back and Longhorn legend first realized what he calls the significant benefits of cannabis. 

After going upstairs in his loft and lounging on a sofa, he remembers his mind clearing of noise so he could hear his own internal voice. He started imagining himself playing better. He preserved those visions of positive possibilities, translating them to the practice field. 

After rushing for more than 300 yards in each of the next two games, he said, “I was right back in the Heisman race, broke a bunch of records and the rest is history.”

On the heels of the NCAA recently removing cannabis from its banned substance list, On3 caught up with the former Heisman winner and longtime cannabis advocate. He applauded the move but called it belated because he recalled failed drug tests “ruining” teammates’ careers. He called the NCAA’s previous rules surrounding cannabis “draconian.”

In addition to what Williams called the “mind-blowing” evolution of perception surrounding cannabis, the striking evolution in public sentiment on other fronts – specifically athlete empowerment and schools directly paying them – has helped force landmark changes from an entity that has for decades been almost universally viewed as rigid: the NCAA. 

Cannabis use was ‘common sense’ for Williams

Ricky Williams, 47, reflected on all of it, absorbing a college sports ecosystem that barely resembles the one he starred in more than a quarter-century ago. 

With the season lengthening for some with the coming 12-team College Football Playoff – creating more mental and physical stress for athletes – Williams believes the NCAA’s about-face on cannabis opens the door to athletes having more self-care options.

“It’s common in college and the NFL after a rough game for the trainer to walk down the middle aisle of the airplane with the Ambien and the Vicodin,” said Williams, founder of cannabis brand Highsman. “To me, cannabis for a lot of guys makes more sense because it solves the sleep problem, helps with the pain problem, and you wake up the next day refreshed and ready to go.”

Williams, who has spent time in Washington, D.C., advocating for cannabis regulation, said he wouldn’t have made it five years in the NFL without cannabis largely because of the emotional rollercoaster of playing professional football. The NCAA’s about-face helps the “normalization” of cannabis, he believes, which he said one day will be more prevalent than how we talk about alcohol. 

Asked if he’d recommend college football players use it with proper education – which is very important to Williams – he said, “I wouldn’t recommend. I’d have a conversation with them because my sense is most of them already are using. When you take away the horrific punishments, it just makes common sense to use it as opposed to using pharmaceuticals to treat the same things.”

Cannabis kept Williams from pharmaceuticals

The biggest benefit of cannabis use during his NFL career, Ricky Williams said, was not having to take pharmaceuticals. One coach told him the only day you’ll feel 100% is the first day of training camp, and he learned that the cumulative wear and tear on one’s body takes an enormous toll.

One season, Williams decided to see how long into the season he could go without taking anti-inflammatory medicines. So what he would do instead was, after practice, go home and smoke cannabis a little bit, stretch and do some yoga. He said he didn’t have to take anti-inflammatories the whole year to deal with the rigors of practice.

“Every single one of my teammates, when I see them, say, ‘You were right. I wish I would have known. I wish I would have listened,'” Williams said. “It’s common sense once you have the experience. But the stigma keeps people from allowing themselves to even have the experience.”

Ricky Williams would have ‘cashed in’ on NIL

On a broader front, had athletes been permitted to monetize their brands in the late 1990s, Ricky Williams said he would have been a massive NIL star but a “horrible student.” 

“I would have cashed in,” he said. “I would have made the price go way up to get me to come back.”

He added that he also would have gained valuable business experience about how to handle money, which would have definitely better prepared him for the NFL.

Williams called himself a “traditionalist” in how he views the college sports industry. 

He doesn’t necessarily believe the next frontier needs to be athlete collective bargaining because, as he put it, these are “kids” and it is unclear whether it would be the athletes themselves or their agents negotiating. 

Ricky Williams: Athletes are not employees

However, he believes the coming revenue-sharing model is a step in the right direction. But he said he does not believe athletes are university employees and that the “idea of a scholarship used to mean something.” And he has a macro concern about where things are headed.

“My fear is, with NIL, who cares about an education – that would have been my attitude when I was in school,” Williams said. “If we’re going to take it this far, let’s just call it professional sports and don’t even make the kids go to school.”

It may not have always done it willingly, but the NCAA has been forced to change on many fronts and for the benefit of the athletes. We’ve seen it in everything from the advent of the NIL Era three years ago and the coming revenue-sharing model to an increasing focus on mental health and the removal of cannabis from the banned substances list.

Without question, we are immersed in the athlete empowerment era and not going back. 

“My issue was they [NCAA] weren’t really looking after and taking care of the athletes,” Williams said. “It was more of taking care of institutions. People can say whatever they want about changes over the past few years, but there’s no doubt that the players are being better taken care of, and less taken advantage of. That is a step in the right direction.”