Professional athletes in the NBA or NFL should be more concerned with public image than ethics.

That's the advice retired NBA all-star Charles Barkley offered Ezekiel Elliott - the Dallas Cowboys rookie who got in heat last week for stepping inside a legal marijuana dispensary in Seattle. The young running back isn't getting any sympathy from Barkley.

“That’s just stupid,” Barkley said during an August 26 appearance on The Howard Eskin Show. “Come on, man. You gotta be smarter than that."

Elliott has become a lightning rod for criticism because of his actions. But Barkley's take is particularly surprising because the former NBA star opened up about his own marijuana use while criticizing Elliott. 

"I’m not a marijuana guy," Barkley told Eskin. "I smoked pot like five times in my life. All it made me want to do was eat potato chips. It was like a waste of my time. I didn’t feel no euphoria, it didn’t take me to no special place. I just said, ‘do we have any more potato chips in the state of Alabama or Pennsylvania.’ ”

Ezekiel did nothing wrong visiting a dispensary

Elliott Run

wikipedia.org

Since recreational marijuana use is illegal in Alabama and decriminalized only in a handful of Pennsylvania cities, it's likely that most if not all of Barkley's experiences with cannabis were illegal. In contrast, Elliott didn't do anything illegal by visiting the Seattle dispensary. And since he didn't buy anything there, he didn't break the NFL's ban on cannabis either. So the issue - as Barkley acknowledged later in the interview - is really about optics rather than right or wrong.. 

"This guy thinks he can just walk into a marijuana store, legal or not, it’s just a bad look. Sometimes I watch sports today. I’m like, you’ve got to have some common sense.”

Based on that wisdom, maintaining a good public image is more important than abiding by the law. And NFL players are expected to comply with the league's rules, as well as social stigmas concerning cannabis use. That's the lesson Barkley offered to Elliott. And - to the dismay of advocates fighting to change perceptions of marijuana in mainstream America - the young Cowboy is learning it well.

“I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong," he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I wasn’t breaking any laws or anything. It was a bad decision. It was something I shouldn’t have done. But I know now. You definitely got to think of the perception of things before you actually do certain things. It may not seem like a big deal to you yourself but there is a bigger picture. It’s definitely a learning experience about the scrutiny. You just got to be careful and not give anyone a chance to say anything.”

Elliott isn't the only player to face that scrutiny. Former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams recently revealed that he retired from football at a young age because of the scrutiny that dogged him after he tested positive for cannabis use. And earlier this year, rumors circulated that the Baltimore Ravens released Eugene Monroe from his contract because he challenged the league's ban on cannabis

Based on the backlash Elliott has faced, it seems unlikely that biases against cannabis in the NFL and sports media will change anytime soon.

Banner image: flickr.com/R24KBerg