NFL's drug policy isn't to blame for Josh Gordon's suspension

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Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
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Six years into Josh Gordon’s struggle with addiction and mental health – as intertwined a battle as you could imagine – only blame is undefeated.

That was probably the only clear takeaway Thursday, when we learned that Gordon’s NFL career would once again be shelved indefinitely after violating some part of the league’s substance-abuse program. The precise infraction is unknown, beyond the reality that the New England Patriots wideout didn’t live up to the rigid set of guidelines that got him back into good standing with the league roughly 13 months ago. That some violation occurred is clear. So too is the checklist of criticism that flies in all directions and from all corners when Gordon gets hit with a suspension.

In one corner, it’s on Gordon. The blown chances, frittered trust and failed efforts from an immensely talented player.

The NFL indefinitely suspended Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon. (AP)
The NFL indefinitely suspended Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon. (AP)

In another, the team gets raked for misguided calculation. About how it should have known better or shouldn’t have wasted resources or needed a better safety net for inevitable failure.

Finally, there is the NFL. Which always catches hell at some point. Either because it’s hypocritical with its testing of players (but not coaches or executives), or because it should remove marijuana from the banned substance list, or simply because it needs to have a better grasp on forms of mental health medication.

In the litany of Gordon suspensions, it has been fair to argue that one or two or all of these criticisms ring true. Malaise is never in short supply and the decisions of all parties become a parade of second-guessing. But this time around, at least one of the typical pin cushions didn’t actually get worse at handling and reshaping the process as it unfolded.

As much as we’re loathe to admit it, the NFL didn’t screw this one up. If anything, it bent over backward like never before to open the door for Gordon. That he failed to take advantage of it speaks to the power of addiction and mental health more than it does the league’s penchant for cutting players down.

Before we start patting the NFL on the back, let’s acknowledge the league’s problems first. It needs to be clear that nobody should be throwing a parade for the league’s drug program. Credit can’t be given to the NFL without first recognizing contradiction. So let’s get that out of the way. And let’s be as blunt as possible about it because hypocrisy exists all over the place in this league.

First, start with the fact that from this moment forward, it’s likely going to be easier for Reuben Foster and Kareem Hunt to play in the NFL in 2019 than Josh Gordon. Gordon’s vices have largely been victimless, beyond the harm he has done to himself. Meanwhile, Hunt was on tape attacking a woman and Foster has been accused of repeated acts of domestic violence. Two of these three men will have NFL jobs in the future. Odds are neither of those employed will be Gordon.

Second, the NFL doesn’t have a substance testing program in place for coaches, executives or owners. That is how the system works, but also becomes an interesting conversation when video pops up of then-Miami Dolphins assistant coach Chris Foerster snorting cocaine off a desk in the team facility. Or when Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay gets arrested for DUI while driving around with a bag of cash and prescription drugs in his SUV. Foerster lost his job and Irsay was suspended six games and fined $500,000, but neither incident spurred the league to consider systematic and graduating testing measures against the leadership ranks.

Finally, it’s almost incomprehensible the league still wields the most significant hammer in all of the four major sports when it comes to positive marijuana tests. In the NBA, MLB and NHL, marijuana testing is largely about optics and not actual punishment. In those leagues, failing a test for marijuana is essentially an expensive speeding ticket and a slap on the wrist. In the NFL, testing positive for marijuana is a spiral into an aggressive and advanced stage of drug-testing that is designed to not only catch players in the act, but also graduate repercussions to career-threatening stages. It’s absurd considering the changing social attitudes and pain management advantages that have made the drug more accepted in the medical community.

Yet, given that reality and an NFL players union that wants less-punitive measures for marijuana use, you have NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying things like this to ESPN in 2017:

“Is it something that can be negative to the health of our players?” Goodell asked rhetorically. “Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say. It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term. All of those things have to be considered.”

Guess what else has been proven to be unhealthy long-term? Toradol. Pills. Painkillers. Anti-inflammatory drugs. Things that create addiction and mask the kind of pain that translates to crippling physical issues in the coming years. Things that destroy kidneys or other internal organs through long-term overuse. Things that can get you more high than marijuana and become a more addictive gateway, too. These are tools used in the NFL today. And the league isn’t calling-all-cars to stomp out the dangers with a tsunami of urine testers. But let a player smoke weed once before a test and they’re ushered onto a fast train right out of the league.

So, yeah. There are a lot of problems with the NFL when it comes to the drug-testing program. A lot of hypocrisy. A lot of holes to poke at.

Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory returned from suspension this season. (AP)
Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory returned from suspension this season. (AP)

All of that said, the NFL has actually made an effort with Gordon. Just as it has extended a hand to repeat offenders like Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory and Seattle Seahawks defensive end Dion Jordan. Not long ago, all of these guys would have been dumped out of the league after repeated substance abuse violations. Just as Gordon would have been after a three-year abyss from 2014 to 2016 that saw him fail drug tests repeatedly and play a grand total of five games.

The past two years have actually seen some changing attitudes on Park Avenue. Despite continuing to have a heavy hand when it comes to recreational substance abuse, the NFL listened when Gordon and Gregory made appeals on a mental health platform. And it was willing to consider an infrastructure that created some leeway for climbing back when it was clear that deep-rooted substance abuse issues were intertwined or even driven by significant mental health hurdles. With Gordon and Gregory, drug abuse wasn’t simply written off as an unredeemable flaw. It was given special space and consideration as something that might not only be treated different, but might also create a redemptive carrot for the small community of players who go through long strings of failure in the program.

Granted, the realities of that space involve something extremely invasive. Filled with a consistent diet of testing, doctors, counseling and support. Requiring a level of self-exploration and structure that would be daunting for anyone living a normal life, let alone a professional athlete who lives in a concentrated bubble of free time, money to burn, fame, social pressure and familial expectation.

It’s not an easy path, but it’s one that wasn’t always there from the NFL. And it’s a path that might not be available in 10 years. Yet, it’s here now, in some kind of pilot phase with guys like Gordon and Gregory – who both went over some significant hurdles just to get back onto a field in the past 12 months.

For Gregory, it has worked. Although that is a battle still fought on a constant basis. For Gordon? It worked briefly before failing again. Neither example makes the league’s effort an ironclad success or a cratering failure. But at the very least, both showcased something different: A willingness to consider a different, albeit still stringent approach.

For that, the NFL’s drug program can’t be blamed entirely for where Gordon is right now. Regardless of the hypocrisy that runs through the league and how it holds players to an accountable standard that doesn’t exist elsewhere in its ranks, there was some unique effort here.

It failed. But it wasn’t a total failure. And at the very least in Gordon’s case, it’s something to build on moving forward. Even if that next step is taken with someone else and in some other season.

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