Cannabis & Sports: 8 Top Movers & Shakers In 2020

by Gregory Frye

While 2020 has been a crazy year on nearly all fronts, it has also been a landmark year for cannabis and sports.

With more leagues easing their cannabis policies, including the NFL and MLB – and even the NBA temporarily suspending cannabis testing during its quarantine bubble play in Orlando – the progress is inspiring.

Why is cannabis and sport a big deal you might ask? For one, increasing numbers of athletes are sharing their stories about the benefits of cannabis as a powerful recovery tool and anxiety aid. This could be a great thing for league owners who want to watch their bottom lines and also improve the longevity of their players.

What’s more, a lot of people look up to these athletes in more ways than one. With every sports star who comes out in favor of cannabis, with every team and league that supports medical cannabis reform, the more we dismantle the lingering stigma that has gripped people’s minds and hearts across the globe for so long. When we overcome stigma, we make room for cannabis education.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of inspiring cannabis athletes from 2020. We no doubt missed several people who are doing great things, and many of them are involved with Athletes for Care, the leading cannabis advocacy group in sports.

Al Harrington, Basketball

The CEO and co-founder of Viola Brands in June 2020 told CNBC about his mission to turn 100 African Americans into millionaires through the cannabis industry.

The plan is part of an incubator program designed to help bring black market cannabis products into the legal marketplace, Harrington said.

Amidst the success of Viola Brands, which closed on $16 million in funding last October, Harrington continues to be quite vocal about the importance of social equity and the disproportionate impact cannabis prohibition has had on people of color.

“That is something I will continue to harp on; continue to bring awareness to because once again, I feel like the ‘War on Drugs’ was aimed towards our community, and they used cannabis as pretty much the main drug to continue to lock us up,” Harrington told CNBC. “All this money being made now, we’re not represented; we’re not there. I feel like we pioneered this industry.”

Harrington, among others, also continues to advocate for the NBA to update its regulations and allow players to use medical cannabis.

Riley Cote, Hockey

Retired NHL player Riley Cote was a strong enforcer in his days as a professional hockey player. He’s also proving to be an enforcer off the ice, in the name of cannabis progress.

After retiring from hockey, Cote has been extremely active as an entrepreneur and advocate. He founded the non-profit Hemp Heals Foundation and recently co-founded the CBD company BodyChekWellness. He is also part of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industries Council.

Cote also serves as NHL League Ambassador for Athletes for Care, an advocacy group dedicated to community, research, and education on the issue of athletes and cannabis.

In a January 2020 article with The Growth Op, Cote talked about how immediately after retiring from hockey, he quit drinking and cut back on sugar and processed foods. He also started using cannabis and psilocybin to help his brain and body heal.

“I just started to heal, to spend time on myself, and fix the damage that I caused,” Cote said in the article. “I fought a ton, man. I went from being an absolute f***ing disaster and really a very mindless human being to a very mindful one.”

Cote continues to be a strong supporter for current athletes using cannabis and CBD, especially those at risk for head trauma and brain injury.

In April 2020, Cote told the Toronto Observer: “On the concussion side of things, if you’re administering cannabinoids daily, getting in the routine of it, you’re protecting your brain from the inside out.”

Anna Symonds, Rugby 

As a champion rugby player, Anna Symonds did not include cannabis as part of her regimen in the beginning. However, everything changed when she consumed with a few teammates after a game and immediately sensed healing and muscle relaxation, according to a recent article published by The Fresh Toast.

“I started to have this mental shift of seeing cannabis as medicine,” said Symonds, who is also an ambassador for Athletes for Care. 

Later in her career after suffering from a back injury, Symonds explains how cannabis was the only thing that worked for pain relief. She also found that she played better when consuming the night before and that cannabis helps relax her anxiety that so often comes with competition.

Today, Symonds is making a significant impact as Director of Education for East Fork Cultivars, where she leads a certified CBD program that has reached thousands of people and professionals across the cannabis industry in Oregon. 

In a 2019 article for Project CBD, Symonds wrote in detail about the ways cannabis has helped her and many other athletes. She concluded that: 

“Elite competitors who excel in many sports have been using cannabis to heal and relax for years. And we are increasingly coming forward to tell our stories. As a member of the nonprofit advocacy organization Athletes for Care, I’ve been speaking publicly about my experiences with CBD and cannabis with the hope that others who are struggling with pain might find their way to a safe and speedy recovery.”

Matt Barnes, Basketball

Retired NBA player and champion, Matt Barnes has been very open about having used cannabis before, during, and after his professional career.

Barnes, now an NBA analyst and podcast host, has been an advocate of the herb for a long time and shows no signs of stopping efforts to reduce stigma, and to change hearts and minds one conversation at a time.

Why is Barnes on this year’s list? Earlier in 2020, popular ESPN sports analyst Stephen A. Smith revealed on-air that Barnes had inspired him to be more open-minded about cannabis after years of criticizing athletes who used it.

In a world where many high-profile figures, and people in general, are still intimidated by cannabis stigma or refuse to admit ignorance, mainstream conversations like this are extremely powerful. Especially when hundreds of thousands of people are watching. 

Keep doing what you’re doing, Matt Barnes!

Marvin Washington, Football

After a successful career in the NFL, Super Bowl champ Marvin Washington is a big player in medical cannabis advocacy and entrepreneurship today.

In 2017 he made headlines after filing a lawsuit against then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, citing the racist origins of cannabis prohibition as unconstitutional.

According to Washington’s bio on the website of Athletes for Care  – where he is also a board member – Washington was a leading voice in the NFL’s concussion lawsuit while also persistently lobbying the NFL to change its drug policies.

In the Spring of 2020, the NFL did exactly that, easing its cannabis regulations as part of the new collective bargaining agreement – an excellent step in the right direction.

Rob Gronkowski, Football

When Super Bowl champion Rob Gronkowski retired from professional football at the age of 29, a lot of fans were surprised. However, the injuries and pain had simply become too much, he’d said.

This season, however, he is making a comeback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers alongside his old teammate Tom Brady.

According to a May 2020 article by Sportscasting.com, Gronk says he is pain-free for the first time in more than a decade thanks to CBD, and that it is a much better pain management tool than opioids and other pharmaceuticals.

While some may be concerned about a potential conflict of interest in these claims due to his partnership with CBDMEDIC, Gronkowski is one of few active NFL players to openly advocate for medical cannabis in the league (the first was Eugene Monroe in 2016).

Rachael Rapinoe, Soccer

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has really paved the way for other sports leagues by being one of the first to openly embrace CBD use for its players.

Rachael Rapinoe, CEO and founder of Mendi – along with twin sister Megan, who plays in the NWSL – have been a big part of the movement.

“We wanted to do what no other cannabis or CBD company has ever done in sports, which was just completely be embedded in a league,” Rachael told Insider.com this past April. “We wanted to come to market 100% backing and being intertwined with a league, and it just so happens to be a league that needs resources. They need people to support them and champion them.”

Rachael’s company Mendi, which is marketed as a sports recovery CBD brand, has partnered with two NWSL franchises, while also bringing on several active players as investors in the company.

In an article that appeared in Benzinga this past August, Rachael outlined the importance of cannabis education and working together to achieve federal policy changes in cannabis.

Meanwhile, she believes that science and education will continue to lead to better products and more widespread use among athletes.

“I think that athletes are going to get to a place where they’re going to be taking a protein shake during an interview, that’s infused with cannabinoids. […] That’s where this industry needs to go.”

Cliff Robinson, Basketball

Retired NBA legend Cliff Robinson passed away this past August after losing his battle with Lymphoma.

Robinson helped lead the Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals multiple times and won Sixth Man of the Year in 1993.

To this day, Robinson holds the Portland Trail Blazers franchise record for most consecutive NBA games played (461). His use of cannabis as an athletic recovery aid was a big part of that longevity. While Robinson never consumed cannabis before games, he did use it as a regular physical recovery tool after games.

Throughout his 18-year career, the few games Robinson did miss were mostly due to cannabis-related suspensions. If it weren’t for his suspensions, his record for consecutive games may have been even longer.

Not only did medical cannabis use tarnish Robinson’s NBA reputation and legacy at the time (will the Blazers ever retire his jersey number?), it also landed him in trouble in a now-infamous racial profiling case. Almost 23 years later, just a few months before Robinson’s passing, the city of Portland issued a formal apology.

Hopefully it is the first of many formal apologies, record expungements, and prison releases for all people who have been punished for their love of cannabis

You can read more about the case and Uncle Cliffy’s life in Green Flower’s recent obituary tribute to Robinson.

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