A month of uncertainty and legal maneuvering didn’t get Josh Gordon anywhere. After much deliberation the NFL has chosen to uphold Gordon’s year-long ban for a third positive marijuana drug test. Gordon appealed the initial test results earlier this month under the belief he was given a false positive. His blame of second-hand smoke was at first met with much skepticism, but a report by NBC Sports’ Mike Florio revealed the arbitrary nature of Gordon’s results. After the league was admonished by the media for their lenient ban for Ray Rice, some predicted a shorter ban for Gordon in attempt to save face. That didn’t happen and the NFL missed a golden opportunity.
In recent years, the NFL has become entangled in social issues, whether voluntary or otherwise. The Breast Cancer Awareness campaign than began five years ago was an overt attempt by the league to expand their appeal to women and come across as a socially sensitive organization. On the flip side, the Richie Incognito bullying scandal last November painted the NFL, somewhat unfairly, as a breeding ground of insensitivity and intolerance. Michael Sam helped the league rebuild their credibility this year, but the Ray Rice outrage and the ongoing concussion debate has left its image blemished.
As it were, most of the NFL’s involvement with social justice has been involuntary, usually a result of league officials addressing issues that have ballooned onto the national stage. When the NFL approaches a social issue, it’s from a strictly reactionary standpoint. In a best-case scenario, The league responds by simply piggybacking onto social issues that are already gaining traction. The Michael Sam story was a groundbreaking moment and shouldn’t be understated, but it’s not like the St. Louis Rams shocked the world by drafting Sam, albeit in the 7th round. If last season’s SEC Defensive Player of the year was passed over by every NFL team, the league wouldn’t have heard the end of it and everybody knew it. When it comes to trailblazing, the NFL has had a paltry track record. They had a chance to change that with Gordon but weren’t up to the challenge.
As a USA TODAY piece reminds us, the rules are still the rules and it was Gordon’s own choice to defy current policy. The NFL has stated they plan to rewrite much of their marijuana policy next season, but for the time being they are going by the books with Gordon’s appeal denial. This view, unfortunately, misses the bigger point. Sure, next year’s NFL policy may very well reduce the penalty for marijuana use to a more acceptable level, but Gordon’s ban is still in effect right now and next year’s changes can’t change that. Arguments aside, people are still being affected, not only by NFL drug policy, but by drug policy in general and people seem to forget that among the specifics of the national debate. Of course, the current laws are in place for a reason, but when those laws (or rules) are clearly misguided, standing tough behind an idealized notion doesn’t change the fact that people’s lives are being affected. Gordon will be away from football for an entire year and the Cleveland Browns‘ season is crippled without one of the league’s best receivers.
And this is just sports. In the real world families are destroyed, lives are lost and opportunities are dashed, all because we refuse to acknowledge the very real affects of an outdated prejudice. Many are criticizing Gordon for being defiantly stubborn of the rules in place, arguing that his ban, despite it’s harshness, is sanctioned by the rules, which must be obeyed until they’re changed. But what if we look at this another way. What is Gordon is giving the NFL the opportunity to make a difference, to send a message to its tens of millions of viewers across the country. Our drug policy has been unfairly punishing normal people without rhyme or reason for 40 years and many have balked at change, fearful of the alternatives. The NFL is only a professional sports league but its message is far reaching. It shouldn’t be up to the NFL to reform our prisons or be the national voice of drug reform, but the least it can do is tip its hat to the good guys and let Gordon play some football.
Jeremy Rucker is an NBA and NFL writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyR327