- Professional sports leagues have been slow to adapt to the recent societal embrace of marijuana-derived products.
- The National Women’s Soccer League has broken the trend, allowing its athletes to use cannabinoids like CBD for pain management.
- Mendi – a sports recovery CBD brand – has partnered with the NWSL’s Utah Royals FC and the North Carolina Courage in addition to bringing on eight league players as investors.
- I spoke with CEO Rachael Rapinoe – whose twin sister, Megan Rapinoe, plays in the NWSL and is an athlete ambassador for the brand – about Mendi’s investment in the league and CBD’s benefits for pro athletes.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The United States has seen a massive shift in attitudes surrounding marijuana in recent years, but the country’s professional sports leagues have been slow to embrace the trend.
Despite being one of the more progressive sports leagues on many other issues, the NBA still lists cannabis as a banned substance. The same is true in the WNBA, which, despite the other sweeping changes provided in the league’s new CBA, continues to penalise players who test positive for marijuana. In MLS, too, cannabis-derived products are prohibited.
While the NFL, MLB, and NHL all test players for marijuana, the leagues have shifted from a punishment-first approach to one that treats player use as “a matter of health care.” Still, players can be subjected to repercussions if they test positive.
There’s a gap between the public opinion and the official stance of major sports leagues. And the National Women’s Soccer League is stepping up to fill the void.
The NWSL is the world’s premier women’s soccer league and is home to the club teams of all 23 players currently on the US Women’s National Team roster. The league has a notably progressive stance on marijuana and its derivative products, allowing players to use cannabinoids like CBD for pain management.
The league has even opened its doors to sponsorship opportunities within the rapidly-expanding cannabis industry, and three of its franchises have signed on with CBD brands. Two among them – the Utah Royals and two-time defending league champion NC Courage – teamed up with Mendi, a women-owned, athlete-developed CBD company whose trailblazing leader has a last name familiar to soccer fans around the world.
Rachael Rapinoe is the co-founder and CEO of Mendi, and her pink-haired twin sister – who rose to astronomical fame after she feuded with President Donald Trump and prominent role in the USWNT’s World Cup victory last summer – is an athlete ambassador and board advisor for the brand.
“As a tool, CBD has been integral in Megan’s training and recovery program for the past few years,” Rachael said soon after announcing Megan’s involvement with the brand. “She’s seen the massive potential for more people to adopt CBD into their recovery regimens and saw a need to do something about it by partnering with us to make sure we do it right.”
Rachael and Megan Rapinoe knew that the NWSL was brimming with opportunity for a business like Mendi, and not just because Megan plays in the league. The NWSL is home to some of the most recognised and celebrated athletes on the planet and has drawn record viewership ever since the USWNT captured the country’s attention throughout its 2019 World Cup run.
“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. “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.”
“You can’t honestly say that you’re a brand that champions equity and equality if you aren’t equally investing in women as you are in men,” Rachael added. “But I also think we saw the NWSL as a good investment opportunity for us because it is a growing league… This league does have a lot of potential. There’s a ton of high-profile, very marketable players in it.”
There were many other reasons why an investment in the NWSL made sense, not the least of which was the league’s stance on cannabinoid use. Partnering with teams whose players can attest to the benefits of Mendi’s products without breaking the rules of the league was obviously a draw for Rapinoe and company.
“None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the progressive policy that the NWSL has in not having a CBD ban and allowing their players to use healthier products in order to mitigate pain and help with recovery,” Rachael said. “They are one of the very few leagues that don’t have a CBD ban, so, in a sense, they’re leaders in this space.”
And Megan – who has arguably become one of the biggest names across all of sports over the past year – can speak directly to CBD’s efficacy. Though her NWSL club – OL Reign – has not yet partnered with Mendi or any other marijuana company, the reigning FIFA Player of the Year has given her full-throated endorsement for the brand and its products.
“I wanted a healthier, more natural option for pain management, sleep aid, relaxation while flying, and general recovery,”Megan said in an interview for Mendi. “Mendi’s mission really stuck with me. The desire to serve the athletes and be our trusted brand, but also their commitment to a healthier lifestyle and changing the status quo around pain management and sports.”
Historically, many athletes who compete at the highest level of sports have resorted to extreme measures to keep their bodies in playing shape. But Rachael told Insider that using a CBD is a healthier alternative.
“You have all these athletes who are playing much later in their careers than previously, and they want the latest and greatest tools, but they want it in the healthiest way,” Rachael told Insider. “For so long, athletes were willing to go to the lengths of playing on Vicodin and playing on opioids and NSAIDs and Ambien.”
“Now, obviously, the science is out, and we know that that is absolutely not good for you and highly addictive, and here’s this other thing that still has a stigma around it.”
The prospect of a championing a natural, non-addictive method of pain relief that could potentially supplant more traditional painkillers hit close to home for the Rapinoe twins. Their older brother, Brian, has spent a large portion of his life incarcerated after becoming addicted to hard drugs at a young age. Megan uses her platform to speak candidly about her family’s first-hand experience with drug addiction because “it’s an important story to tell.”
“With the opioid crisis, so many people were affected, and honestly, it’s just not their fault,” Megan said in a recent appearance on “The Lowe Post” podcast. “We’re told to trust our doctors, we’re told to trust our healthcare providers, and you have some of these smaller, rural towns … where these big companies just feasted on these small towns and pumped [opioids] in there.”
Rachael, Megan, and many others see CBD and cannabis products as a healthier alternative to NSAIDs and harder painkillers. Mendi’s second athlete ambassador – WNBA legend and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird – says that she’s been able to manage her joint pain using Mendi’s CBD Salve Stick, weaning off of anti-inflammatory drugs in the process.
“My knee is literally the knee of an 80-year-old. My doctor actually told me that,” Bird said during a “Sideline Huddle” interview shared on Mendi’s platforms. “It’s just arthritic, so I’m on an anti-inflammatory pretty regularly, especially when I’m gearing up. I try to get off it when I’m not doing any on-the-court workouts. Prior to all of this COVID stuff, I was in a ramp up, so I was on an anti-inflammatory. Then it became a thing where maybe anti-inflammatories are bad right now because they suppress your immune system, so I was told to just go off it.”
“Now, I’ve been ‘sticking’ my knee like a madwoman,” Bird added. “I’ll do it before my workouts, like 30-45 minutes before, I do it at night. It’s part of my after-shower routine now. It’s like lotion on my face, Mendi on my knee. I’ve been pounding it on my knee.”
While the WNBA and many other leagues still prohibit CBD use, Bird said she’s hoping to help “people have an understanding of what CBD is, what it does, and the positive impact it can have so when it does become legal… people will be ready for it.”
“I want to tell other athletes to chop down the stigma of CBD,” Bird said. “It’s amazing to talk to people with the old mindset and realise how much they just don’t know. Here’s a company who’s really focusing their entire business helping athletes achieve the 1% to help them be better in their sport. That’s the selling point when I speak with other athletes about Mendi. There’s only so much you can control, but this recovery aspect is something you can.”
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