In this guest post, John Tillson and Winston C. Thompson discuss the recent case of US track star Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension from competing at the Olympics.

Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the US Olympic team after testing positive for marijuana. This is ultimately because the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided to ban THC in-competition in all sports. THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive component of cannabis/marijuana. WADA can prohibit athletes’ use of substances in order compete in the Olympics and other major sporting events such as those organized under the auspices of World Athletics. Richardson has apologized for her actions and US President Biden has commented on the case saying, ‘the rules are the rules’.

But is that all there is to the case? Is the mere existence of the rules sufficient reason for following them? The ban and Richardson’s violation of it have generated controversy and raise ethical questions. What kinds of rules may justly restrict participation in sports? Must athletes abide by whatever rules the World Anti-Doping Agency make up, as Biden seems to indicate? After all, Richardson was not required to participate in athletic competitions. Should her voluntary choice to do so, oblige her to comply with any standards or rules of such competition? When athletes compete, should they do so on whatever terms the de jure authorities set, and would it be wrongfully dishonest of them not to? Perhaps, if she rejects them, Richardson should explicitly petition against the rules rather than silently and secretly violating them and trying to get away with it? Maybe the ban on THC is a good rule: maybe smoking weed sets a bad example to the impressionable young, or is in some way unsportsman-like? Maybe consuming THC disadvantages other competitors?

For our own part, we cannot see any compelling reason for any agency (especially not a powerful agency like WADA) to ban THC, or for Richardson not to violate the ban as it exists. On our view, her rule-breaking and secrecy about it was not wrongful. We hold this position as we perceive that Richardson was deprived of a fair set of choices by WADA, as it made the following unfair imposition on her: Choose between either ‘doing something which harms and disadvantages no one while providing you a reasonable degree of comfort’ or ‘not competing in your sport even though such activity is a meaningful and essential part of your life and identity’. The imposition of such invasive restrictions on a person should not be permitted and persons are morally permitted to violate attempted efforts at such impositions. In the absence of some equally well-regarded league of THC-legal races, or an exciting THC-legal Olympics, it’s unfair to expect athletes to conform to unjust rules when there are no viable alternatives for similarly meaningful athletic performance.

Below, we explain our position.

First, consider the grounds on which WADA, or any other organization, might be permitted to ban THC.

Individual sports are, at least in part, constituted by systems of rules specifying different (seemingly arbitrary) goals and constraints: FIFA, for instance, bans players other than goalkeepers from touching the ball with their hands during play. If such a constraint was not recognized or enforced in a particular match, the game would not be football at all. Beyond some very central rules that, taken together, make a given sport fairly unique (like the object of kicking a single ball into an opposing team’s net plus the prohibition on ‘handballing’), rules are introduced or phased out for different reasons: some are introduced to standardize elements of the sport (such as equipment and measuring devices) so as to enhance fairness, others to enhance the pleasure and interest of the game (such as the off-side rule in football), others are introduced for the safety of the players. Given these categories of rules (and potential others), some might wonder why FIFA couldn’t justifiably prohibit smoking weed, or eating THC brownies, or having an alcoholic drink, or eating meat, just as they prohibit handballs.

It does not seem plausible that a ban on THC is essential to any sport in the way that the prohibition on handballing is essential to football. Furthermore, even if THC were constitutively essential to athletics in this way, we have strong reasons to abandon that sport for the almost identical game in which it is not essential. Restricting players from consuming substances on their own time, so long as it does not adversely affect others ‘on the clock’ (that is, during competition) would not seem to enhance the interest of the sport or standardize it in ways that make it fairer. While it might be obvious that players should not walk onto the pitch intoxicated, much of what they do in their lives off the pitch, so long as it does not unfairly effect what happens on the pitch, is their own business. This would seem to mean that THC, like alcohol consumption is not a matter of legitimate concern for referees, umpires, and the like, after the race is run, or final whistle blown.

While smaller bands of freely associating people – say, a religious, or a narcotics/alcoholics anonymous group, who jointly decided to run their own athletics leagues – might legitimately make up rules requiring that participants must all be THC, or alcohol-free, a hegemonic, national or world organization that decides the conditions of participation for the most desirable honors and opportunities within the sport (like FIFA) could not permissibly do so. The presumption for such organizations should generally be that athletes are free to conduct themselves as they prefer with reasonable privacy unless significant negative externalities give us cause to consider restricting some liberties.

WADA’s sphere of influence is restricted to prohibiting substances (and methods); they cannot make other rules.WADA prohibits substances that satisfy at least two of the following three criteria:

  • potential to enhance performance;
  • risk for the athletes’ health; and
  • violation of the spirit of sport.

Some WADA-aligned researchers and leaders argue that THC satisfies all three criteria, indicating that satisfying the third criterion is really a function of satisfying the first two: “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.” This shifts discussion to the first two criteria. However, it might be thought that the fact that marijuana is illicit is not idle here and may be enough to make smoking it violate the spirit of the sport. However, it is worth noting that marijuana is not universally illegal and is not illegal in Oregon, the state Richardson was in during the period in discussion. Simply because some jurisdictions ban some substances does not seem to imply that all athletes everywhere ought to be bound by those restrictions. After all, Singapore banned chewing gum in 1992, and alcohol is prohibited in several Muslim-majority countries. Both are substances that WADA does not prohibit as it does THC, and nor should they be.

We are unsure whether the harmfulness of a practice or the fact a substance can enhance performance should count independently of one another in favour of prohibiting a substance. If the substance is available for all to take and does no harm, it could simply seem sensible to take it. If a substance was harmful, it could seem imprudent to take it, but too paternalistic to prohibit it. Perhaps as role models athletes genuinely have other-regarding duties not to take harmful substances, lest other should copy them. But it’s important to note that alcohol and cigarettes are not banned in similar fashion and weed would seem closer in kind to them than to say, heroine.

Good reasons for an organization like WADA to proscribe a substance include its being simultaneously harmful and performance-enhancing, rather than just one or the other. This is because taking the harmful substance would confer a disadvantage on competitors who would have reasonable grounds to refuse to take the substance to reap the performance gains. However, THC does not seem to fit this description since it does not seem to enhance performance. In addition to the claim that it can enhance some people’s performance, WADA claims that THC is dangerous to take. However, it is surely not more dangerous to eat THC brownies than to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, but these activities are not similarly banned and nor should they be.

Imagine that some hegemonic worldwide organization for your own much loved and identity-conferring profession (healthcare, academia, law, etc.) banned your preferred, pleasant unwinding activity, or perhaps even tiny vice: smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or watching Saturday Night Live. Suppose your options were:

1) Follow along as an amateur while battling the rules and keeping the vice,

2) Risk losing income, contracts and more, by keeping the vice on the sly and apologizing when caught to continue as a professional in the field,

3) Give up the vice to stay in the profession.

Since 1 and 3 are unreasonably exacting expectations, it’s not fair on people to force the choice on them. Since it’s irrelevant to fair sport, WADA is not morally permitted to proscribe THC. Since people have rights of fair access to competitive sport, Richardson does no wrong to violate them.

Sometimes breaking unjust rules is not okay. In some cases, the fact that an unjust rule exists creates an obligation to comply. If a sport’s authority were to (arbitrarily and unjustly) ban training more than three hours a week, it would not be okay for an individual competitor to break that rule, thereby gaining an unfair advantage over other competitors. As described above, this is not true for the use of marijuana. When poor rules are set, and no one is harmed or disadvantaged by violation of them, one can permissibly violate the rule.

On our view, WADA’s rule banning THC belongs to a wider class of rules: those bad rules that people have no reason to follow except for prudential avoidance of unjust penalties. Richardson did no wrong in breaking this unjust rule. The world athletic community and spectators should take this moment to reflect on the rules and push for their reform.


John Tillson is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Liverpool Hope University. He is Co-Director of the Centre for Educational Policy Analysis at Liverpool Hope and the author if Children, Religion, and the Ethics of Influence (Bloomsbury 2019). His research encompasses curriculum theory, wrongful influence in education, and school discipline.

Winston C. Thompson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy (by courtesy) at The Ohio State University. Thompson’s scholarship explores ethical/political dimensions of educational policy and practice, with recent work exploring punishment and rules in educational contexts.