Pro athletes are getting involved in cannabis in a significant way. In previous years, that sort of intro may give a pause for concern. Some fans might even conjure up “What if…” scenarios around top names that were forced out of their professions over cannabis use. While those stories were sad examples of the relationship between the two, the tide has certainly changed.
Today, scores of professional athletes are now entering the cannabis space. Major household names are now heading their own THC and CBD brands, as well as others, lending their names to companies looking to expand their market reach.
American football has seen an influx of athletes turned executives and leaders in cannabis. They include advocates like Ricky Williams, who was driven from the National Football League (NFL) for cannabis use at certain points in his career. Today, Williams runs a cannabis wellness brand and advocates for the plant in a variety of ways.
The former running back is joined by other advocate entrepreneurs like Eugene Monroe. Like Williams, Monroe advocated for the plant while playing. His efforts only accelerated after retiring. Now, Monroe is an advocate, author and partner for a leading cannabis brand, Green Thumb Industries. He joins other retired gridiron vets like Kyle Turley and Marvin Washington in leading business and advocacy efforts in the CBD space.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has produced its share of athlete entrepreneurs as well. Some, like Al Harrington, hid their activities while playing. Getting involved in 2011, Harrington couldn’t officially embrace his entrepreneurial activities until retiring in 2015. Since then, he’s led his company, Viola, to a $16 million funding round while leading the way of social equity efforts as well. Along with Harrington, other names in the space from the NBA include Cliff Robinson and Jamal Mashburn, just to name a few.
Other major names have signed on as partners in a range of deals. They include retired NFL veteran turned WWE personality Rob Gronkowski, who is a prominent brand spokesperson for CBDMedic. Active golfers, including Bubba Watson, have done similar deals. For Watson, he joined the company cbdMD as a spokesperson, joining athletes like retired mixed martial arts fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
Why a Retired Athlete Would Enter Into the Cannabis Space
Like anybody else in the cannabis community, athletes cite many reasons for getting into the space. In many cases, pain is the driving force. For some, like with Al Harrington, it’s seeing the medicinal effect it has on loved ones. For the NBA veteran, seeing his grandmother’s glaucoma symptoms lessen so that she could read her bible once again had him sold.
More commonly, though, it is the physical pain associated from their playing days that drive athletes to find a solution for themselves and subsequently others.
Former NHL athlete Riley Cote explained to Green Flower how cannabis eased his pains and prescription drug use. The former Philadelphia Flyers winger said, “Being a professional hockey fighter that had over 250 fights, [cannabis] helped me with my post-concussion symptoms and overall brain health.” Had it not been for his playing days, Cote said, he may have never had the medical restrictions of the NHL, which would lead him to finding a holistic medical option like cannabis.
After retiring, Cote launched the Hemp Heals Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at promoting cannabis and hemp as viable treatment options. Along with the previously mentioned Marvin Washington, Cote is part of the group Athletes for CARE, serving as the group’s NHL ambassador.
Cote is rather diversified, including serving as a partner in a for-profit CBD venture, Bodychek Wellness. He is also part of a CBD processing facility, Advanced Alchemy Labs, which has a production partnership with Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.
“It’s certainly an interesting space to navigate,” said Cote. “I feel we are on the right path now and look forward to continue growing.” Cote said he expects to further involve himself in cannabis as the industry and his ventures develop.
Some athlete-backed ventures come as a family deal. Such is the case with Rachael and Megan Rapinoe. The fraternal twins and U.S.A. Soccer athletes had already found burgeoning success in the training and apparel world with their brand, Rapinoe SC. In the fall of 2019, the two would be part of the launch of the CBD brand Mendi. Rachael serves as Mendi’s co-founder, CEO and head coach. Megan, along with WNBA and U.S.A. Basketball star Sue Bird, serve as spokespeople for the brand.
Rachael Rapinoe, an active CBD user, told Green Flower that the company relies on athletes in a variety of ways. The co-founder explained that having professional athletes on Mendi’s team differentiated the company as it launched.
“To say our athletes have influenced company decisions, would be a severe understatement,” said Rapinoe about the company’s launch strategy. Those high-performing athletes were essential in research and development as well. Rapinoe said Mendi visited with hundreds of athletes, conducting focus groups to hone in on product developments before launching.
Beyond research, development and promotions, Rapinoe added that athletes are on the company’s cap table of owners as well. Speaking to the influence of athletes in business, the athlete entrepreneur added, “Professional athletes provide a variety and quality of ideas, initiatives and energy that you just can’t replicate.”
Cannabis Rule Changes Ahead in Pro Sports?
American pro sports have slowly been coming around to accepting that their athletes use cannabis. In 2018, the 3-on-3 BIG3 basketball league, mostly comprised of retired NBA veterans, became the first American sport to allow athletes to use CBD in-season.
The next major news would come in late 2019, when Major League Baseball announced that it was doing away with all drug testing, save for opioids and cocaine. Instead, players who test positive for cannabis in their system will now be referred to a treatment board led by medical experts who will craft a treatment plan for the athlete.
The NFL furthered progress in American sports with its recently passed collective bargaining agreement. Per the deal, NFL athletes can no longer face suspension for a positive cannabis test. Additionally, the testing window will shrink from four months each season to two weeks at the beginning of training camp. Also, testing officials will now consider 150 nanograms or more as the threshold for a positive test. Previously, 35 nanograms or more would trigger a positive result.
With such change taking effect, more could be on the horizon. While temporary, the NBA has halted its drug testing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.