This year, NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana made news by investing in Caliva, a large California weed operator. He’s not the only sports name to appear on the cannabis radar. The NHL Alumni Association decided to partner with Canopy Growth, a Canadian company, to study cannabinoids as treatment for post-concussion neurological diseases in ex-hockey players, and the basketball league Big3 announced that cbdMD will be its official sponsor.
Even more striking, brands and dispensaries have been popping up under the banners of former sports stars like NHL player Riley Cote, who founded BodyChek Wellness, a premium hemp extract line, and the NBA’s Al Harrington, whose company of medicinal and recreational products is named after his grandmother, Viola.
What is up with retired pro athletes and cannabis?
“It’s been interesting,” says Cote, a former defenseman with the Philadelphia Flyers. “Cannabis and sports five or 10 years ago couldn’t coexist in a sentence, and now [cannabis] is looked upon as the ultimate recovery tool.” That’s especially true for life after the major leagues. The athlete-pot connection starts to make sense when you think of the two big pain points of being a retired player — the first of which is, well, pain.
There’s no question that athletes, as a group, face significant health problems. More than 40 percent of retired NFL players show signs of traumatic brain injury, according to research presented by the American Academy of Neurology. And for many former players, injuries of all kinds on the field, the court, or the ice mean living with chronic pain — sometimes along with addiction from the drugs they were given to keep winning. A study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine last year found that 26 percent of NFL players who’d been prescribed opioid painkillers during their careers were taking the drugs after leaving the sport — 14 percent as directed by their doctors, and 12 percent misusing them.
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For retired athletes facing these issues, the world of cannabis can be particularly attractive. Although research has been thwarted by the plant’s federal illegal status, a comprehensive review in 2017 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found strong evidence that cannabis is effective in reducing chronic pain. Smaller studies have also suggested that the plant may lessen depression and anxiety and help those addicted to opioids actually get off the drugs.
But for athletes, healing isn’t the only draw — and here’s the other big pain point: When star players finally take off their jerseys for the last time, says Cote, they “struggle with who they are. [Until retirement] everyone kind of knows you for what you did — your job — and all of a sudden, you’re not that anymore. You’re kind of like a has-been. It was like, that was in the past.” Cannabis not only offers hope for their injuries; it can also open the door to a whole new career, complete with a sense of identity and purpose. “It’s something to grab on to,” says Cote, who has thrown himself into the cannabis industry not only as an entrepreneur but also as an activist, having started the Hemp Heals Foundation, which supports a holistic approach to health, and cofounding the advocacy group Athletes for Care.
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Cote encourages other athletes to think of cannabis as both a therapy and a business opportunity. “This is all for the greater good of all people,” he says. “So why not hop on the bandwagon and be a part of it in some capacity? Use your skill set. It doesn’t matter what you’re good at; you can intersect that with the cannabis space and healing.”
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