Email Exchange: Josh Gordon’s NFL Problem

Cleveland Browns v Jacksonville Jaguars 12-1-2013

Today’s article: “Josh Gordon and the NFL’s Drug Problem,” Andrew Sharp, Grantland

Michael Rosen:

Usually you and I will read a piece and then gather questions that speak to the larger issues the story addresses. Thankfully (or unthankfully), Andrew Sharp’s already done the dirty work for us, sticking a giant pile of rhetorical questions midway through his piece about Josh Gordon’s drug suspension:

“But once you look at the details of the case, the questions get bigger than whether a wide receiver smoked weed. For instance: Why does this sport need to test people using a standard along the same lines as the U.S. military’s? Why is Josh Gordon treated like a paroled criminal for his entire career after testing positive twice? Do they really test him 10 times a month? Does it make sense to treat marijuana users the same way we treat PED users? Is there anyone at the NFL who saw the positive test and thought it might be too inconclusive to publicly ban a star player for an entire year? Does it make sense for the NFL to be testing players for marijuana at all? What does the league gain from prosecuting people like this?”

Woah! That’s a lot to unpack, and I think we can probably spend the rest of the exchange answering these questions. Thanks, Andrew!

The meat of the issue is probably in that last question, or at least that last question feels the most complex of all of the question Sharp proposes. He takes it on himself, positing essentially that it’s the owners’ desire to exercise some degree of control over their employees. I’ve been thinking about this for a few minutes, and I honestly can’t think of a better answer than that. There are innumerable negative economic effects of suspending star players like Gordon for such extensive spans of time. It sullies the NFL’s image. And if that is the case — that the owners want to effective have their employees, the players, scared and on a leash at all times — then the implications of that are, uh, a little scary and a lot backwards.

The question in there that initially came to my attention was the fact that the NFL’s policies for suspending their players for marijuana aren’t just stricter than the military’s, but significantly so. That is insane. There is absolutely no reason for that to be the case. I have no more complex thoughts than that.

One last thing before I hand it off to you: the NFL is a really evil institution. Sharp reminds us of all the times they’ve “insulted our intelligence” in the recent past: “the Ray Rice suspension last week, the psychotic uniform fines we see every year, the refusal to change the Redskins’ name, the annual crackdown on touchdown celebrations, the grandstanding with the Saints bounty scandal, downplaying concussions for the better part of the last 50 years.” My Big Question: will there ever come a point for you when the NFL’s ethical issues force you from watching the NFL?

Cameron Seib:

Just to clear up any confusion over all the military talk (no, Gordon isn’t thinking about enlisting): Sharp was using the U.S. military’s drug policy to show just how ludicrous the NFL’s is. To explain, the NFL’s threshold for a positive marijuana test is a THC concentration of 15 nanograms per millimeter. Meanwhile, the military’s is 50 ng/ml. Gordon, in the test that is now threatening to take away his season, recorded 16 ng/ml. In other words, he could’ve smoked three times as much as he purportedly did, and still would’ve had the full blessing of federal law to do a tour in Iraq. Instead, he’ll head to a court room to argue that, despite the weed, he’s qualified to step onto a football field in front of thousands of blacked out fans.

Why Gordon’s league insists on these standards is, as Sharp says, genuinely confusing. Generally speaking, we’re apt to think that big, omnipresent corporations like the NFL have two goals: making money and maintaining a positive public image. (And, often, these are one in the same — look good to the fans, and they’ll be more willing to put down dollars on your product.) But potentially suspending Gordon for an entire season because he had a little weed in his system is itself neither profitable nor commendable. Remove the league’s leading receiver from play and some fans are going to tune out, even if it is a relatively small number of them. This might be worthwhile were said suspension to earn the NFL a bunch of media attention for doing the moral thing, but taking away Gordon’s year for such a small infraction won’t achieve anything of the sorts. Never mind that the majority of the public is now in favor of marijuana legalization, because even those who don’t support the drug to that extent know it’s quite harmless. So everyone, pro-weed or not, is kind of left looking at this impending punishment at thinking, why the fuck doesn’t the NFL focus on its more pressing problems? You know, like the racist brand name and wife-beaters. When someone makes an “Arrests Database” for your company, most would agree it’s time to stop worrying about the employees who enjoy their free time with a side of munchies and South Park.

I really fail to see how the NFL’s policy on marijuana can, by itself, earn the league money or respect. So I’m left thinking that the owners must see strict punishment of pot use as serving some overall net benefit in those realms, which brings me back to Sharp’s point about controlling player behavior. A player caught burning trees doesn’t sully the NFL’s image (and thus bottom line), but a wide receiver caught messing around with heroin probably would. And maybe the league’s administrators think that by being strict about marijuana use, they’ll prevent more damaging incidents from every occurring. It gets back to the classic marijuana-as-gateway-drug argument. The owners probably believe that by scaring their players away from marijuana, they’re removing those players from situations in which more serious shit could go down. I guess I agree with Sharp in the sense that the NFL’s pot policy allows owners to control their employees’ behavior, at least to an extent. But I don’t think owners seek this power simply because “that kind of authority matters to [them]”; I just think they subscribe to outdated notions about joints begetting needles begetting AK-47s.

To your last question, no. Because, as a fan, I’m never supporting the league or its executives, I’m there for my team and its players. If all the NFL’s players and coaches decided to quit on their current franchises, and then created their own league, that league would be exactly the same to me. Which, I guess, is all to say, I don’t associate Roger Goodell and Daniel Snyder with the Richard Sherman picks and Pete Carroll fist-pumps I see during a Seahawks game. It’s an unfortunate fact that by purchasing a Sherm jersey, I’m also supporting the livelihoods and evil practices of Goodell and crew, but it’s also a guilt that pales in comparison to my love of professional football.


Yeah, sorry for my lack of clarity on the whole military business in my initial dispatch, I was a bit tired while writing.

To your theory that the owners might subscribe to the “marijuana-as-gateway-drug argument”: I’ll admit that the idea plays into my assumptions about who the owners are and how they think. I don’t care enough to look this up for sure, but I’m fairly certain that the overwhelming majority of NFL owners (and sports team owners writ large) are rich white men above the age of 50. My thought is that extremely rich, white men of that age often share similar political views and worldviews, and I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch that many of them likely don’t view their players in the most favorable of ways.

I think I’m becoming increasingly conflicted in my ability to ignore the league’s obvious moral iffiness. The drug stuff is whatever, for the most part, and I chalk most of it up to rules just generally being inflexible. But the way that the league handled the PR of the Ray Rice case really disgusted me. You can’t chalk that up to bureaucracy. And the whole concussion business…this could be its own separate discussion, but I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that football REALLY, invariably, fucks people up in terrible terrible ways, and it’s becoming slowly more difficult to compartmentalize. You’re totally right that you don’t associate Goodell/Snyder with, say, a massive Kam Chancellor hit, but you sure as hell associate concussions with it.


The thing is, I don’t think the NFL could ever collapse from the outside in. That is, it will remain alive and profitable so long as the people who keep it running — the players — continue to suit up. Because if games continue to be played, I can’t imagine fans ever giving up interest. No matter how permissive of domestic violence the league might seem to be, how medieval its drug policies are, or how much money it brings in from discriminatory brand names, individuals will look past an organization of moral transgressions to remain part of a community they savor. Like, sure, it’s not all that honorable of me to prop up an NFL run by oligarchs who treat the rest of the country as their profit-earning pawns. But fuck if I’m thinking about that when a couple buddies invite me over to watch a game, when there’s fantasy football to be played, when a Super Bowl has been won and there are couches to be burned.

Concussions, I think, stand as the single biggest threat to the NFL’s longevity. But again, not for reasons regarding fan apprehension. Yeah, it sucks to think that I get all loud and chest-pumpy over a couple guys who’ve mutually agreed to damage each other’s brains. Still, though, I’ll be able to justify it, because I can always tell myself, “Well, these guys know what they’re getting in to.” And I’ll want to justify it, because, well, watching Chancellor annihilate Vernon Davis and high-fiving my friends is a lot more fun that watching it and pointing out, “Hey, don’t you guys think it’s bad to encourage this savagery?”


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