Josh Gordon and the Case for Reforming the NFL’s Drug Policy

Even as a die-hard NFL fan, I am not particularly invested in Josh Gordon as a person or player, except for during the occasional face-off against his fantasy owners. But since my sister got engaged to a Browns fan (and by extension, became a secondary fan herself), I’ve often found myself randomly shooting the breeze with her about random Cleveland players and the other day Josh Gordon just happened to become our most recent topic of a discussion.

For those who don’t know much about the Cleveland Browns (understandable) or pro football (unforgivable), Josh Gordon is an ultra-talented second-year wide receiver, albeit one with a history of documented drug use. Gordon played college ball at Baylor with stud Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, but was kicked off the team and out of the college after two violations of the school’s drug policy, the first of which involved Gordon unceremoniously (but admittedly hilariously) being discovered with marijuana after falling asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru. Gordon subsequently transferred to Utah intending to finish his college career there, but instead opted to declare for the 2011 NFL Supplemental Draft, ultimately missed the deadline, and sat out an entire year before being taken in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft by the Browns. Entering the NFL seemed to signify the turning of a corner for Gordon, who finished his first season with over 800 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns (very solid numbers, for the NFL layman), lots of highlight-reel plays, and serious hype among fans and analysts as a future NFL superstar. However, Gordon followed up his promising rookie year by testing positively for codeine during one of the NFL’s random drug tests, bringing his total number of drug violations to three. In addition to being suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season (which he has now already served), Gordon now faces the possibility of a year-long ban from the NFL for his next infringement.

Anyway, back to the convo with my sister. Gordon came up in the context of a larger discussion about the perceived plans by the Browns’ front office to gut the team and intentionally finish with a poor record in order to secure with a higher pick in the 2014 draft. Aside from trading their starting running back and benching their starting quarterback, the Browns are now allegedly dangling Gordon as trade bait at a time when his stock is at an all-time high after a spectacular debut last week. Moreover, they were less than supportive of Gordon during his suspension, even going so far as to allegorically throw him under the bus by leaking details of his maturity issues to the media. When I brought this up with my sister, who is very informed but not quite obsess about NFL developments to the extent I do, she was appalled. She also claimed that her fiance, who had supported the Browns’ personnel moves thus far, would be equally appalled, as Gordon was one of the franchise’s most talented players. When she asked why the team would trade the player with the brightest potential, I explained to her the risk they would be taking if they held onto Gordon. Yes, I said, Gordon has skills for days (I mean, the guy did this last week) and would be a very solid building block for the franchise moving forward, but the Browns management would be foolish to risk a possible year-long suspension for Gordon when they could simply trade him for a high draft pick that could potentially fetch an asset of similar or equal talent but without the baggage. Well, she replied, why are they counting his college violations against him? And why are they suspending him because of marijuana? It’s not like he was using performance-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive advantage and essentially cheat. I simply responded, all too dismissively, that in the NFL all drugs are for the most part created equal, that for the Browns the risk is the same no matter what the root cause, and that this is just the way it is, for better or worse.

But my sister’s line of questioning got me thinking: Why is this the way it just is? Why treat PED-based violations the same as infringements resulting from recreational drug use? Why count Gordon’s pre-NFL suspensions against him and toward an ultimate super-suspension? And most importantly, why use suspensions like Gordon’s as a disciplinary measure in the first place?

Now, I completely support imposing suspensions for PED-based violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, as the use of these drugs is clearly aimed at tilting the playing field. Cheating should be deterred and punished. But does this same logic apply to recreational drug- or alcohol-based violations? These are not rooted in a player’s sinister motive to gain an advantage at the expense of his peers, but rather in a compelling physiological need, a lack of control or even outright addiction. It is not the type of behavior that can necessarily be remedied through the threat of suspension, any more than the average chronic drug or alcohol user can always be deterred through the threat of jail-time. Thus, it probably merits different treatment. I get that league officials and franchise owners and managers have to do something, especially in light of the frequency of infractions and the league’s worsening public image. But this “something” should be something other than suspension.

Here’s why. Consider these statistics regarding Gordon and his fellow members in the 2013 recreational drug and alcohol suspension club:

  • Josh Gordon (Cleveland Browns): Four-game suspension resulting from June, 2013 failed drug test (marijuana); two previous suspensions resulting from failed drug tests (both marijuana)
  • Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville Jaguars): Four-game suspension resulting from June, 2012 DUI; previous arrest and one-game suspension resulting from 2010 DUI
  • Von Miller (Denver Broncos): Four-game suspension resulting from July, 2013 failed drug test (codeine); previous suspension resulting from 2011 failed drug test (marijuana, amphetamines);
  • Aldon Smith (San Francisco 49ers): Indefinite leave of absence resulting from September 20, 2013 DUI and marijuana possession; previous arrest in 2011 for DUI.

Notice anything similar about all of these cases, aside from the conspicuous absence of any of my Seahawks (who for the record prefer PEDs)? Well, first, all of these players are repeat offenders, and as you can see, many of them were suspended for the exact same infractions for which they had previously been suspended and/or arrested. This seems to indicate that these were not random incidents, but rather parts of larger patterns of behavior that have not been corrected through traditional disciplinary measures. Second, these suspensions all occurred for incidents that occurred during the off-season, i.e., when the violators were not regularly playing football. What this suggests, at least to me, is that these players are more likely to stay on track when they are playing football and are more likely to fall off the wagon when they are not.

This is understandable because, as cliche as this may sound, football does keep a lot of these guys on the straight and narrow. At the risk of overgeneralizing, many of them have used their commitment to the game to overcome difficult childhood circumstances and past or continuing negative behavioral influences, as has been documented at length elsewhere. In light of this, wouldn’t it make sense to allow those who “revert” to problematic behaviors, such as consuming marijuana or drinking and driving, to continue participating in the very activity that keeps them out of trouble, perhaps in combination with alternative restrictions or penalties? I think so.

I suppose the natural response to this notion is that the league would be rewarding these players, rather than punishing them, by allowing them to continue playing. To be clear, I am not advocating giving these players a free pass for their infractions. Any response to a DUI, failed drug test, possession charge, etc. must include some kind of punitive measure designed to deter future incidents, such as pay reduction, substance abuse counseling, mandatory community service or a public apology, for starters. In addition, teams can implement their own in-house programs, such as curfews, check-ins and chaperoning, as has at least one team with significant success (discussed in depth below).

I honestly believe that such an arrangement would be a win for all parties involved. For the players, it would provide continuous discipline, consistency and camaraderie through the practice and game schedule, as well as a goal on which they can remain focused and use to avoid distractions. Just as important, it would give them the sense that their teams are willing to invest in them as players and people, rather than viewing them as expendable pieces to chuck by the wayside when a defect surfaces. This would likely have the effect of increasing players’ reciprocal commitment to their teams, in turn keeping them on the reservation and preventing future infractions. For the owners, the continued participation of violating players would allow their teams to maintain competitiveness (as it does seem to usually be the impact players who end up in trouble), and would consequently keep fans engaged. Moreover, by demonstrating their willingness to invest in their products, rather than treating them like outdated smartphones, owners would likely improve the return on investment of these players in the form of increased dedication and improved play (also discussed below).

Such an arrangement is feasible, and the most compelling evidence for this is that it has been done with success before. In 2011, the Dallas Cowboys opted not to suspend stud wide receiver Dez Bryant (a player eerily similar to Josh Gordon in terms of playing style and talent) after a domestic violence incident in which Bryant allegedly struck his mother, instead imposing on him a strict behavioral regimen. Like Gordon and others, Bryant had had a history of breaking the rules, and was also criticized frequently for his mentally lackluster play and failure to translate his sublime athletic talent into on-the-field results. Under the Cowboys’ rehabilitation program, Bryant was more like a kid being grounded than one being thrown out of his house. He was given a midnight curfew, required to attend counseling, barred from clubs and strip clubs and accompanied virtually around the clock by security teams. The result: So far, pretty darn successful. Not only has Bryant maintained a clean record since the domestic abuse incident, but pundits observe that he finally “got it,” to the effect that Bryant transformed into the most effective wide receiver in the league in the second half of the 2012 season (as evidenced by his 12 touchdowns on just under 1,400 receiving yards on the season, of which he accrued 10 touchdowns and 880 yards in the second half alone, as compared to 15 touchdowns on just under 1,500 in his first two seasons combined). He has continued his strong play into the current season and projects to become one of the best offensive players in the league this year.

Now, it’s obviously too early to tell if Bryant’s program was a complete success, but the signs are certainly telling, especially when compared to other situations in which suspension was the disciplinary measure of choice. Gordon, Blackmon and Von Miller responded to suspension by getting suspended again; meanwhile, Bryant responded to his “grounding” by playing the best football of his life. In light of all this, isn’t it at least worth trying a new approach?

Ultimately, if the league and its owners want more Bryant outcomes than Gordon outcomes, they need to get real about updating the current disciplinary paradigm. I, for one, would like to get my money’s worth by continuing to watch the best players playing at their best without the ease of knowing that they are more than one miscue away from being thrown out onto the street.

Update: Predictably, the Browns are screwing up at screwing up, having won their last two games and all but taken themselves out of the running for the top prospects in the upcoming draft class. Sorry Clevelanders; at least you’re not Detroit.

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