How does Josh Gordon’s Latest Incident Shape the NFL Policy Conversation?
Issue   |   Wed, 02/11/2015 - 00:05

This week football fans were shocked by the announcement of yet another drug-related suspension for Josh Gordon. This is not Gordon’s first, second or even third such suspension overall. So far in his career he has missed 12 games due to substance abuse and one game for violating team rules. While this may not seem like that many games, considering he has only been in the NFL for three seasons, he has effectively missed a quarter of all games for which he would have been eligible. Unfortunately, Gordon’s problems with various substances did not begin once he became a professional. During his time at Baylor, Gordon was twice suspended for marijuana use, the second of which being indefinite.

This last suspension, however, has nothing to do with marijuana. As a result of being charged with DWI after testing .01 over the legal alcohol limit, Gordon was given a zero-tolerance alcohol policy. Immediately upon landing in a private plane, Gordon received a message from the NFL mandating an alcohol test. As he had consumed two beers and two drinks during the flight, Gordon knew he would fail, and he did. As a result, the NFL has suspended him for a year at minimum.

There is no question that what Josh Gordon did was wrong. In his first-person letter published on the website Medium, he recognizes as much when he says “I make mistakes — I have made a lot of mistakes.” What is not clear is if these lengthy suspensions are warranted, and whether or not the NFL needs to revamp its disciplinary processes to better reflect the severity of the discretions. Before this past December, the punishment for a first-time personal conduct offender (including domestic violence) was between two and three games. This is opposed to first-time substance abuse offenders, who received four-game suspensions the majority of the time.

Furthermore, second-time offenders of the drug policy were unfailingly given an eight-game suspension. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, this discrepancy is even reflected in the literature.

While the NFL’s Policy and Program For Substances of Abuse numbers 32 pages, the Personal Conduct Policy is a measly two. This past December, the NFL finally decided to formally revise their Personal Conduct Policy, which now mandates a six-game suspension for any act that includes “assault, battery, domestic violence, and sexual assault that involves physical force.” Now that the punishment for violence fits the crime, I believe it’s time for the NFL to reevaluate, and reduce their suspensions for substance abuse.

In this day and age, marijuana use is slowly losing the stigma it has carried for the entirety of his modern existence. Scientists have conducted a lot of research that has shown that marijuana is potentially less harmful to long-term health than both cigarettes and alcohol.

Taking an even further step back, why does the NFL even have the ability to monitor athletes’ actions in the offseason? Sure, many employers require drug tests to ensure employee reliability, but how does that factor into a player’s offseason choices?
While I do believe that in-season drug testing should be condoned, I do not think that the NFL should have the right to monitor athletes’ personal lives during the offseason. Smoking marijuana or abusing any drug can and will affect an athlete’s performance during practice and games. NFL teams have a right to a player’s best possible performance level, and therefore testing them during the season is justified. Once the season ends, however, it’s a whole new situation. If an athlete is maintaining his fitness, and using these drugs only socially, how could there be any long-lasting negative effects?

What is even more appalling about the NFL’s treatment of Gordon, and its drug policy as a whole, is the difference between the players’ and the owners’ treatment. When Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, was stopped by a police officer last March, he was found intoxicated, and carrying various prescription drugs along with $29,000 in cash. The NFL not only waited almost six months to levy its punishment, but also suspended Irsay for only six games and fined him $500,000.
Josh Gordon, however, was suspended for a full calendar year only six days after his failed drug test. Not only was the suspension levied exponentially faster, Gordon was also given a much stiffer punishment, mostly because of his status as a stage three drug offender. As a stage three offender, Gordon has to be drug tested 10 times a month. In addition to this stringent stipulation, each failed drug test carries a mandatory one-year suspension. Based on this suspension, Irsay should have at least been suspended for a full season, and potentially more. His decision to drive while under the influence of prescription drugs not only was dangerous, but also reflected negatively on the league’s reputation. An owner should be held to a higher standard than the players, not a lower one.

Not only are the NFL’s policies concerning drug use outdated, its testing process is also unreasonable. When Josh Gordon failed a drug test in the spring of last year, only one of his two urine samples was above the threshold, 15ng/mL. For reference, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s threshold is 150ng/mL, exactly 10 times that amount.

Unfortunately, it was Josh Gordon’s first sample, or sample A, that registered as 16 ng/mL. His second, or B bottle, was under the threshold, at 13.6 ng/mL. If the order of the two had been switched, then the NFL would not have determined that Gordon failed the test, and he would not have been suspended for 10 games of the 2014 NFL season. Even the average of the two tests would have been below 15ng/mL. The NFL eventually did raise the testing limit to 35ng/mL, but this change was too late to invalidate Gordon’s suspension.

While the NFL has made significant strides toward ameliorating these discrepancies, there is much work to be done. First of all, owners and players must be held to at least the same standard when they violate NFL policy. Both represent “the shield” in their personal lives, and must be treated as such. Second of all, player punishments resulting from marijuana use should almost certainly be reduced.

As stated earlier, marijuana is no longer the drug it once was. It’s even legal in two states! Ideally, the NFL should treat marijuana use as it does alcohol use.

Finally, there is Josh Gordon’s situation. As a stage three substance abuser, Gordon is treated almost worse than a criminal. In his three-year career, Gordon is estimated to have taken upwards of 70 drug tests. It’s time to stop treating recreational drug users like criminals, and instead focus on what really affects athletes’ performance. Given the NFL’s recent track record of effectively dealing with issues, one can only hope that it will take action this time.