A new bipartisan congressional bill aimed at helping student athletes monetize their success contains a provision that would let colleges and intercollegiate organizations block them from making sponsorship deals with marijuana businesses.
While the legislation would address a longstanding controversy over inequitable payment to college athletes, drug policy reform advocates are disappointed to see the legislation perpetuate anti-cannabis policies despite the growing, state-level legalization movement.
The Student Athlete Level Playing Field Act, introduced by Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) and seven other original cosponsors, would make it so colleges and associations like the NCAA could not prohibit students from being involved in intercollegiate athletics if they’ve entered into sponsorship agreements.
However, it stipulates that the exception would not apply if the sponsorship is from a “seller or dispensary of a controlled substance, including marijuana.”
Student drug policy reform advocates took exception to the cannabis provision.
“Student-athletes are professionals and deserve the right to earn funding from any legal service they deem fit. As young professionals, they can determine for themselves if an endorsement is going to hurt or help their career,” Luis Montoya, co-interim executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “These restrictions are not based in any science, and in particular ignore community re-investment efforts by the cannabis industry. Banning student-athletes from accepting endorsements from an industry that wants to reinvest in local communities only limits the opportunities afforded to these young professionals.”
The bill, filed last month, would also allow actions against students who get endorsement deals with alcohol, tobacco, adult entertainment or gambling companies.
Meanwhile, for lead bill sponsor Gonzalez, this particular provision seems to depart from his overall record on cannabis reform.
The congressman voted in favor of spending bill riders to protect all state, territory and tribal marijuana programs from federal intervention in 2019 and this year.
In other education-related drug policy developments, a separate House bill filed last year would repeal a federal law punishing college students who are convicted of drug offenses by stripping them of their financial aid. That reform cleared the Education & Labor Committee as part of a broader college affordability bill, but it has not advanced further.
In any case, Gonzalez touted his new legislation, arguing in a press release that it “delivers meaningful reforms and will make a difference in the lives of student athletes of all levels of competition across the country.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), an original cosponsor, said the measure “is a civil rights issue.”
“For far too long college athletes across the country—many of whom are people of color—have been denied the basic right to control their name, image and likeness,” he said. “What we wanted to do from the outset was come to a bipartisan consensus that puts forth a national framework that gives college athletes the same rights every other American in the country is already afforded.”
But while the congressman acknowledged racially disparate policies in college sports, it’s also the case that the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted African Americans and Latinos. Reform advocates who support cannabis legalization have emphasized the need to create opportunities for people from communities harmed by prohibition enforcement to participate in the newly legal marijuana market.
And so while the athletics bill seeks to make a seemingly benign exemption for allowing marijuana-related sponsorships, the policy also makes it so students of color who’ve been most negatively affected by these college policies are unable to benefit from endorsement deals with an industry that advocates are hoping can play a proactive role in fostering racial equity.
Earlier this year, Major League Baseball clarified that players can consume cannabis without being disciplined, but moved to ban them from entering sponsorship deals with marijuana companies.