The Sha’Carri Richardson discourse shows most fans don’t care about athletes as people

When it comes to athletes, nobody cares about your pain.

That much is apparent after listening to all of the discussions on sports radio and television and reading comments across social media in the week since Sha’Carri Richardson was dropped from the US Olympic team after testing positive for marijuana.

On Tuesday, Richardson’s last hope of competing at the Tokyo Games in the 4x100m relay, which is scheduled after her one-month suspension will be completed, was dashed when she was left off USA Track and Field’s 130-person roster for this month’s Summer Olympics.

One talking point that has been repeated time and again is that Richardson has accepted her punishment and everyone should just move on. But what was she supposed to do? Not accept the sanctions? Fight against the US Anti-Doping Agency, USATF or the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee?

All she could do after seeing her sensational results from the US Olympic trials disqualified was say she was sorry.

“I apologize,” Richardson said on NBC’s Today show. “As much as I’m disappointed, I know that when I step on the track I represent not only myself, I represent a community that has shown great support, great love. … I apologize for the fact that I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time.”

“We all have our different struggles, we all have our different things we deal with, but to put on a face and have to go out in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain,” Richardson said. “Who are you? Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with a pain or you’re dealing with a struggle that you’ve never experienced before or that you never thought you’d have to deal with. Who am I to tell you how to cope? Who am I to tell you you’re wrong for hurting?”

Richardson’s essential admission that she had self-medicated to cope with the death of her birth mother in the days before the US trials was met with a surprising callousness and lack of compassion from the talking heads across sports and general news media, many of whom have returned to the same points again and again:

“What kind of example is she setting as a celebrity?”

“Are we supposed to bend the rules because someone has a sob story?”

“We have rules for the norm, not for the exception.”

“It’s unfortunate that she initially tried to rationalize this. She had a good reason but it’s not enough to justify you violating restrictions.”

“She knew the rules, she broke the rules, end of discussion.”

(It’s interesting that a lot of the critics who are now declaring that “rules are rules” tend to be the same people who loudly and proudly flouted the public health guidelines of wearing a mask or social distancing during a global pandemic. Or the same people who refuse to honor the results of a democratic voting process and are holding onto a false claim that the November election was stolen from Donald Trump despite zero credible evidence of voter fraud whatsoever. But I digress!)

This week I spoke with former NBA player Al Harrington for my show The Rematch. Harrington, whose company Viola Exracts is one of the nation’s leading producers and licensed wholesalers of premium quality cannabis products, made the case that marijuana was not in fact a performance enhancer and therefore shouldn’t be on the banned list in any sport. He highlighted the contradiction of addictive opiates being passed out like candy in professional sports but an organic pain-management alternative like marijuana being illegal. He recalled how he was given an anti-inflammatory called Celebrex and instructed to take two in the morning and one at night for most of his career; only years later did the FDA require Pfizer, the drug’s manufacturer, to pull Celebrex from US pharmacies because its risks of heart, stomach and skin problems clearly outweighed the benefits.

Harrington also discussed the irony that Richardson won the trials in a state where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational use. He advocated for Usada and the USOPC to re-evaluate what he called a very “outdated” rule, especially as many countries around the world are now accepting cannabis in some form within their countries. He discussed the benefits from a medicinal standpoint of the plant, not only for athletes but everyday people dealing with anxiety, depression, as well as joint pain.

But what stood out to Harrington most was the lack of compassion toward Richardson he saw in the general tenor of the media coverage.

“You have to think, she had to be really low,” he said. “She knew she had to run in four or five days, she knew there was a possibility that she could test dirty, she had to be really low at that moment to say, you know what, I’m either going to do this or I’m going to do that, and her that was probably way more detrimental to her health. That has to let you know that she was in a bad spot.

“I lost my dad when I was eight, and I remember what that did to me. I can imagine what she is going through. And having to then go out and compete?”

“Yes, rules are rules, and I will always acknowledge that. But it’s time for us to change this old, outdated rule. Sha’Carri Richardson smoking weed four or five days dealing with her mother’s passing did not make her run that 100 meters in 10.65 seconds.”

As I came to know in my own NBA career, the reality is most people don’t care what athletes are going through personally. They just want them to perform at an optimal level and that’s all they care about. Entertain me and keep your problems and issues to yourself. If you’re required to talk to the media, who cares about your depression or anxiety? Just do your job, Naomi Osaka. If your mother just passed away, who cares how you’re feeling, Sha’Carri Richardson. These are the rules and you better not break them.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for anyone to break anti-doping regulations, which in place there for a reason. But certain situations like Richardson’s need to evoke a sense of compassion and nuance that at best cause a reevaluation of the rule itself, but at least serve as a reminder to fans that athletes are in fact human beings.