(Photo: Desiree Martin, AFP/Getty Images)
Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
USA TODAY - Thursday's NFL season opener is about to get hit with an end-around PR play from a harsh critic that's ultra-savvy at garnering media attention.
The Marijuana Policy Project announced Wednesday that it has posted a giant billboard advertisement -- within eye-shot of Denver's Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium -- that warns the National Football League: "Stop Driving Players to Drink."
The 48 X 14 foot billboard, which shows a football leaning against a foaming beer glass, advises: "A safer choice is now legal here." Colorado, after all, is one of two states (along with Washington state) that have recently legalized marijuana use by adults 21 and over.
"NFL players are being told that they can go out and get completely drunk, but face no punishment from the league," says Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy project. "But if a player gets caught using marijuana, they could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, forced to sit out games and deemed a troublemaker."
Because marijuana is now legal for adults in Colorado and Washington -- and is not a performance-enhancing substance -- "we don't think the NFL should be punishing players for using marijuana," Tvert says.
For the NFL, one of the most successful and powerful behemoths in the entertainment world, the ill-timed billboard is a painfully public reminder that a longtime league policy that prohibits marijuana use for all players is arguably in conflict with the two new laws.
The billboard also is a visual pie-in-the-face to the big beer makers -- particularly the NFL's big beer sponsor, Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser and Bud Light.
For the Marijuana Policy Project, it's a virtual PR gold mine, almost certain to gain the attention of national media attending the league's high-profile opening game Thursday night between the Denver Broncos and the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
The move comes just weeks after the same advocacy group posted a high-profile, pro-marijuana video ad outside an entrance to -- but off the grounds of -- NASCAR's big Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The ad stayed up part of one day before it was taken down.
But, for the moment, at least, the much larger billboard company that's posting this ad has no plans to remove it. "We're putting it up like we put up a campaign for any other company," says Paul Zapata, the salesman at Lamar Advertising, who sold the billboard space to the advocacy group for about $5,000.
Executives from Lamar, one of the nation's largest outdoor ad companies, did not respond to interview requests. Anheuser-Busch declined to comment. NFL executives declined to specifically comment on the ad, but league spokesman Brian McCarthy says, "We do not plan on changing our policies."