NFL helps itself by helping players with drug issues

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

When Browns receiver Josh Gordon didn’t show up for training camp under circumstances that were sold and reported as Gordon making the decision on his own, something seemed fishy. When he returned to camp with his ability to practice and play hinging on league approval, it became more obvious that the league had a hand in Gordon’s absence.

That’s significant because, given his status under the substance-abuse program, there’s not much gray area. For players who return from a minimum banishment of one year, they land in Stage 3 permanently. One false move is supposed to result in another banishment, with the ability to apply for reinstatement after another one-year absence.

But the NFL isn’t applying the policy quite as stringently as it may have in the past, apparently giving players like Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and Randy Gregory the benefit of the doubt instead of throwing them out of the league.

Nearly three months ago, a report emerged that the Raiders were bracing for the league to suspend Bryant for at least a year. The Raiders cut Bryant earlier this month, under the apparent assumption that the shoe of Big Shield justice was going to drop on Bryant, again. Indeed, coach Jon Gruden openly mused about bringing Bryant back next year.

And now the Raiders are on the verge of bringing Bryant back this year.

In Dallas, a similar dynamic seems to be playing out with Gregory, a promising defensive end whose career has been derailed by substance-abuse issues. He reportedly had a relapse in August. Under the terms of the policy (and given the league’s past throw-the-book-at-them precedent), Gregory should be gone for at least another year. He’s not, and he may not be.

While it would be nice to attribute this potential epiphany to altruism, the NFL in helping players with off-field issues is helping itself. Bryant, Gregory, and Gordon are great performers who make the game more compelling. At a time when ratings are down and the supply of highly-talented players could become more limited, why force great players out of the game over issues that have nothing to do with their employment?

If that’s indeed what’s occurring, it’s smart for the league to quit looking for ways to keep players who smoke marijuana or use other recreational drugs from playing and to start finding ways to keep them on the field and help them in the process.

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