Josh Gordon, Drugs, and the Modern Athlete

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As even the casual NFL fan knows, Josh Gordon has a bit of a checkered past. In it, the following things have all occurred:

-In 2010, Gordon was found asleep at a Texas Taco Bell with his Baylor teammate, and they were both caught in possession of marijuana. Normally, this would qualify as the least dignified day of someone’s life, but after a subsequent positive test for marijuana, he was kicked off the team and declared for the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft, where…

-…he was selected with a second-round pick. “Yay,” he probably thought, “I’m a high NFL draft pick!” He was then informed that he would have to play for the Cleveland Browns in a year when Brandon Weeden ended up making 15 starts, and that day ended up even worse than the day he fell asleep in the Taco Bell.

-After putting together a nice 50-reception, 800-yard rookie season, Gordon yet again failed a drug test and was assessed a two-game suspension at the beginning of the 2013 season. After serving this suspension, he did what few people considered possible and led the NFL in receiving yards despite catching passes from Brandon Weeden and playing fewer games than everyone else, and recording the only two back-to-back 200-yard receiving games in league history. Instead of receiving a plaque for doing all of those ridiculous things, he was suspended for the entire upcoming season (a suspension which was then upheld on appeal), after he, you guessed it, was found to have marijuana in his system during a drug test.

Possessing weed is still illegal most places in the US, although the general trend seems to be toward acceptance of its use among the public. It is, at worst, a venial sin. The Gordon suspension is a remnant of a bygone time (the 1980s) when much of the public perception of professional athletes in the three major American sports was tied to their use of certain drugs (as the record indicates, lots and lots and lots of coke). In order to win back public esteem and the resultant sponsorship dollars, leagues incorporated stringent penalties for positive drug tests. These efforts were largely successful, and images of recreational drug use are now far from the current view of the athlete.

Were it not for the weight of public opinion, would the NFL have ever thought to incorporate harsh drug penalties, especially for marijuana? The answer to this question may lie in the current debacle surrounding Ray Rice, who received only a two-game suspension for being captured on video battering his wife at a casino. Only after much public upheaval did the NFL, in a move that can easily be equated to appeasement, incorporate standardized punishment for players implicated in domestic violence.

Of course, even if Josh Gordon played for the Denver Broncos and was partaking in only the most legal of homemade marijuana cigarettes in his spare time, and only on his days off from running free football camps for orphans, the NFL could still have come down just as hard on him. Sure, he probably shouldn’t have failed so many drug tests if he knew what the rules were, and if he really, really can’t stop, that’s cause for him to go and get help. It’s obvious, though, that his proclivities don’t at all prevent him from performing well, since his play matches up with the best receivers in history (small sample size, because he’s always suspended). The suspensions sprout from the NFL’s desire to be on the right side of public discourse when their players commit crimes. Except we wouldn’t know that Josh Gordon was smoking so much if the NFL wasn’t keeping such close tabs on him.

All told, Gordon will be suspended just as long as Donte Stallworth was in 2009 for drunkenly killing someone with his car. If these sound like offenses of disparate severity, it’s because they are. It could be that there was a time where the NFL’s heavy hand in punishing the victimless crimes of its players was warranted, as a deterrent to impressionable youth who idolized athletes. Plausible, because children are idiots. Still, these regulations should be tempered for today’s realities, before a PR mishap forces the NFL to act.

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