Only A Game?: The NFL’s War on Drugs

In this column, Jamie Moore addresses the real-world issues implicit in the National Football League. Read his previous thoughts here.

Since I don’t often make a point to watch the Cleveland Browns, I didn’t see Josh Gordon in action until last year, when the Browns visited Gillette Stadium to play the Patriots. While the Browns lost at the very last moment, Gordon put on a standout performance. The 6’3”, 225-pound receiver caught only seven passes but racked up 151 receiving yards, a touchdown, and one rush that went for 34 yards.

Every time the ball was in his hands, he was blindingly fast, excitement personified. On his long touchdown catch, he caught a relatively short pass—it had traveled maybe eight or ten yards through the air—and put on the afterburners, leaving Patriots defenders in his wake. In a league filled with astoundingly athletic humans, he still managed to stand out.

Gordon finished the season with 1,646 receiving yards and nine touchdowns over only fourteen games—that’s about 117 yards per game receiving, the highest mark in the league. For those of you less familiar with NFL statistics, that essentially means Gordon was the most productive receiver in the league on a game-by-game basis last year. I resolved after the season that I would try to watch more of him this year, especially given widespread predictions of team-wide improvement for the Browns.

Imagine my surprise this past May when—just after a draft where the Browns took on several talented players from the college ranks—Gordon was suspended for the entire 2014 season for a marijuana violation. He wasn’t arrested before the suspension. He had previously tested positive nearly a year before in June 2013 and was enrolled in the league’s substance abuse program. The yearlong suspension was his proverbial third strike.

But the situation became more complicated than a 23-year-old who smokes marijuana more than he should. After the suspension was announced, Gordon claimed that he hadn’t actually smoked any marijuana since his last suspension, and that the positive test came instead from secondhand smoke. While this would be a pretty ridiculous claim under normal drug-testing regimes, the strict terms of the NFL drug policy under which he was tested make this scenario fairly plausible.

The threshold for a positive test under the NFL’s testing policy at the time was only 15 nanograms/milliliter, by far the strictest standard in professional sports. In comparison, the MLB requires 50 ng/ml and the World Anti-Doping Agency requires 150 ng/ml. It’s even below the primary threshold used in US Army drug tests: 50 ng/ml for the first offense, and then 15 ng/ml. Gordon tested at 16 ng/ml, a concentration conceivably low enough to come about through exposure to secondhand smoke.

Additionally, because of his previous violations Gordon could be tested up to ten times a month, without notice, for the rest of his career. According to reports, he had actually undergone more than 70 tests between his positive results in June 2013 and May 2014. Given the strictness of the regime, it’s implausible that he was lucky enough to slip by while using marijuana regularly.

When the Ray Rice scandal broke out, Rice’s initial suspension of two games was compared to Gordon’s. Rice knocked his fiancée out cold and missed an eighth of his season; Gordon potentially smoked some weed and missed the entire thing. Not only did we see how flawed the NFL was in dealing with abusers, but we also saw how far off the mark they were on drug use.

That’s what makes this next piece of news so important. In October, the NFL Player’s Union and the league agreed to major changes to the NFL’s drug testing program, addressing both PEDs and recreational drugs. Regarding marijuana, the league is relaxing its standards, raising the threshold for a positive test to 35 ng/ml. In addition, the progressive punishments for drug use have been relaxed. A player can now test positive three times without being suspended, and the maximum possible suspension has been reduced to ten games, both major improvements. Under these new rules, Gordon’s suspension has been reduced to ten games, all of which he has already served.

Non-marijuana related changes in the new program include testing for human growth hormone, the most common performance-enhancing drug, and neutral arbitration for all drug-related disputes—that is, a party other than the NFLPA or the League itself will handle appeals to drug suspensions (under the old rules, the commissioner was judge, jury, and executioner). This swap of HGH testing for relaxed rules on marijuana and other drugs is one that the players and league have been trying to negotiate for years, but neither side had enough leverage to push their favored deal through. Now, though, with increased public pressure on the league, the players have finally been able to push through a deal favorable to them.

Make no mistake: these changes are a win for the players. Even though players tend to oppose HGH testing—either because they want to use it or because they don’t want to take additional drug tests—the removal of PED users benefits player health overall. NFL players are bigger, faster, and come back from devastating injuries in less time than ever before. While some of this can be attributed to advances in training and sports medicine at both the professional and college levels, only the most optimistic observers would deny that players are using PEDs.

Cutting down on the use of these drugs would undoubtedly help make the sport safer. While problems with concussions and other long-term injuries are embedded in the nature of football, keeping players from getting cartoonishly huge has the potential to mitigate these injuries.

Beyond PED use, though, a lot of problems in the NFL’s drug policy haven’t been resolved. There are still major questions, especially pertaining to marijuana. While it’s understandable and advisable for the league to punish players for violent criminal behavior like abuse or DUI, why do they pay disproportionate attention to marijuana use? Why does the league need to treat players like convicted felons, testing ten times a month for a drug that is decriminalized or even legal in some states?

And that brings us back to Josh Gordon. He remains eligible for the same punitive number of monthly tests as he did before the rule change. Nonetheless, he is finally back. Speaking in terms of his overall career potential, it’s a huge improvement over missing the whole season, especially if the Browns can finally defy their dismal past and make the playoffs.

This Sunday, Gordon suited up for the Browns against the Atlanta Falcons. There were a few times when he looked a little rusty—understandable, given that he’s been forbidden from even going to the team facility since the season started. The suspension, though, did not kill his electricity. There was one play in particular that stood out to me, about 12 minutes into the first quarter of the game.

Gordon caught a quick pass behind the line of scrimmage, with another Browns receiver and a lineman setting up a few quick blocks for him. This is one of the most common, undifferentiated plays in football—every team runs a version of it, and all the versions look about the same. It’s just a quick and dirty way to get a few yards.

Gordon pivoted to catch this quick pass, planted his foot to start running downfield, and all of a sudden everyone looked slow. He weaved through his own teammates and opposing defenders, going about 30 yards in less than four seconds. The Falcons stopped him before he broke the plane for a touchdown, but it didn’t matter. The ordinary is extraordinary, and Josh Gordon is back.

Header image by Erik Drost/Flickr via Creative Commons.

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