Former Cowboy Mark Stepnoski still takes a stand
Dec 06, 2002 - Ron Cook
At first glance, it's easy to dismiss Mark Stepnoski as another whacked-out football player who took one too many shots to the head or, in his case, perhaps smoked one too many reefers. Why else would he risk smearing his good name and limiting his future earnings by becoming an officer, activist and high-profile spokesman for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws?
"I've been reading about this issue for years," Stepnoski said from his home in Dallas this week. "I firmly believe in their cause."
Anyone who knows Stepnoski can't possibly be surprised. He was one of the brightest athletes to play at Pitt, a two-time Academic All-American in the late-1980s. He's also never been afraid to go after what he wants. For 13 years with the Dallas Cowboys and Houston/Tennessee Oilers, until his retirement in January, he did it in the NFL as an overachieving, 265-pound offensive lineman who made five Pro Bowls and the All-Decade team of the 1990s. Now, he's doing it by leading the fight to decriminalize and, ultimately, legalize the use of marijuana.
This is not a man who is going to be frightened off of an unpopular point of view.
That's admirable, whether you like his position or not.
"I'm sure a lot of people are going to be critical of me," Stepnoski said. "What are you going to do? This doesn't change who I am as a person. This is the way I've always been. I'm not going to be deterred. I know I have the truth on my side."
It's probably still a good thing Stepnoski made enough money as a player that he doesn't need a new full-time job. Companies usually don't like to be associated with illegal drugs. Stepnoski knows. He joined NORML and became a financial contributor in 1998 but had to keep his membership his dirty little secret from the image-conscious NFL. It was only after he retired that he went public.
Can you say hypocrisy and NFL in the same sentence? Stepnoski, a confirmed smoker who said he never tested positive for marijuana during his career, has no trouble doing it.
"There were times I had to take shots of painkillers to play. Those are powerful drugs. They are synthetic opiates. There's a high potential for addiction there. Marijuana is non-toxic. It's non-addictive. It doesn't lead to other drugs. You can't overdose on it. No one has ever died from it. In many ways, it's safer than prescription drugs."
The legalization argument is for another day, Stepnoski said. "That's clearly the best way to go because prohibition doesn't work." Now, NORML's battle is for decriminalization.
"Our main concern is getting the government to stop throwing marijuana smokers in jail," Stepnoski said. "We're trying to make the penalties less severe for possession. The punishment just doesn't fit the crime. It destroys lives -- not just the lives of the people who are incarcerated, but the lives of their families. It doesn't reduce the demand for marijuana. It doesn't make it less available. It's just a waste of taxpayers' dollars. We'd be a lot better served by focusing our priorities elsewhere ...
"All of Western Europe has decriminalized, Canada, Australia. Just about all of the industrialized world. We're falling behind in so many areas. We need to catch up."
Stepnoski said he plans to devote more time to the cause and against "all of the misinformation that's out there, because people have been bombarded with propaganda for so long." Earlier this year, he agreed to become president of the Texas chapter of NORML, which is based in Washington D.C. He also joined its advisory board.
Stepnoski's visibility as a former athlete already has brought NORML much welcome attention. It's not every week you pick up Sports Illustrated, see a picture of a player of his caliber in his Cowboys uniform and read him say: "After a game you hurt so much, you need something to relax. I'd rather smoke than take painkillers."
NFL people must have about died when they saw that in this week's issue.
"Most of the feedback I've received so far has been very positive, but I know the NFL isn't going to like it," Stepnoski said. "But you know what? I'm not employed by the league anymore."
Nor does he have any plans to coach.
That's probably just as well.