In 2021, the NCAA changed its archaic rules to allow college athletes to profit off of their “name, image, likeness (NIL).” This has allowed for endorsements, sponsorships, partnerships, and overall business relationships for the aspiring professionals on and off the field. Companies like “Kool-Aid,” Boost Mobile, and Petsmart have all put money into student-athletes’ pockets with NIL deals. Even the social media platform, Barstool Sports, has signed thousands of college athletes to NIL deals. But how will the NCAA view NIL deals between college athletes and cannabinoid companies?
The NCAA Banned Substances List has alcohol, cannabis, and caffeine as prohibited for student-athletes, but this is more so for performance on the field and drug tests. This prohibition does not extend to endorsements and sponsorships, as we’ll see with Islamorada Beer Company. Because the NCAA never contemplated endorsements for athletes, their policies on the matter are silent when it comes to marketing a “banned substance.” I am certain that no one would have an issue with a Starbucks’ ad of a collegiate athlete drinking a cup of joe before five-in-the-morning workouts. On the basis of strict analogy, there should be no issue with a legal-age student athlete endorsing a cannabis brand, whether it be the local dispensary or a cannabis farm.
What about a CBD (cannabidiol) company? CBD products would seem particularly ripe for a collegiate athlete NIL deal. The NCAA does not technically ban CBD products but the language in the banned substances list is broad enough to make one skeptical of its nonprohibited use. The NCAA states that “[a]ny substance that is chemically related to one of the above classes (the Banned Substances List), even if it is not listed as an example, is also banned.” Since CBD and THC are all related to cannabis it is believed that this prohibits CBD and hemp products as well. Although, we hold that this belief is misguided.
One of the most intriguing NIL deals so far has been Florida Atlantic University’s quarterback, N’Kosi Perry’s deal with Islamorada Beer Company. The beer company brews their own products, has two bars in Florida, and now prominently presents itself as the “first Alcohol Company to endorse an NCAA Athlete through the NIL.” Perry is above the age of 21, so he is not endorsing a product he cannot consume. But in the social media ads/commercials Perry can be seen tossing beer cans around, just not drinking one himself. The best line from the ad is Perry saying, “I am tailgate ready!” The marketing impact of the NIL deal is straightforward: Perry is popular among college football fans; college football fans consume beer; Perry’s endorsement will sell more Islamorada Beer.
Perry’s deal with Islamorada is not the first time an athlete has had an endorsement deal with an alcohol brand. Countless professional athletes have sponsored the alcohol, from Golden Tate with Budlight, Damian Lillard with Modelo, to Lionel Messi with Budweiser. The truth is, the time for athletes to cash in on cannabis is now. Stigmas, barriers, and rules have changed; if brewing companies can have NIL deals then it makes perfect sense that cannabinoid companies should have NIL deals too.