If the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation in Miami has taught us anything, it’s that NFL teams are subject to the same labor laws as everyone else. Playing football in the NFL is a job—a high-paying, dangerous, entertainment job that’s restricted to a select few people in the world.
There are certain things that just shouldn’t—and wouldn’t—happen at any other workplace but are tolerated in the NFL. An arrest for drug possession will get you fired at just about any Fortune 500 company, no matter how innocuous the drug or where it might be legal.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was arrested for marijuana possession on Tuesday, and, according to head coach Andy Reid, he’ll start on Sunday, via the team's official website. The Chiefs won’t comment on the issue, and they probably never will.
However, this issue goes far beyond Bowe, the Chiefs and simple marijuana possession.
The NFL has very twisted cultural norms. In many ways, the NFL culture remains unchanged from 30 years ago, when there weren’t camera phones everywhere and a real-time 24/7 news cycle. It’s a different world now, and it’s about time the NFL changed.
There may be hundreds of players using marijuana, but the NFL has a collectively bargained policy with the NFLPA that is thinner than dollar-store toilet paper. Commissioner Roger Goodell has god-like powers to suspend players under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, but after the Saints bounty scandal, he has taken a softer approach to discipline.
In the last few years, NFL players have done—or have allegedly done—all kinds of terrible things. Jovan Belcher committed murder-suicide while drunk, and Aaron Hernandez allegedly murdered a suspected drug dealer and is being investigated on other crimes. Rolando McClain fired a gun next to a man’s head and played just a few days later, and Josh Brent killed a teammate while driving drunk.
The NFL has an image crisis, and it’s about time it cracked down on poor behavior of the players who represent the league. The NFL may not be complicit in the behavior of the players, but it certainly enables it. The league makes billions off the athleticism of young men, and as long as they perform, they get chance after chance after chance.
The NFL’s substance abuse policy clearly isn’t curbing player usage, and it doesn’t seem like anyone cares. If anything, the policy is just an inconvenience to the players who just happen to have their drug test fall within a few days of their usage or—in the case of Bowe—were stupid enough to drive around with it in their car.
Bowe’s mistake was getting arrested and bringing negative publicity to his team that is preparing to play its biggest game of the year. It might be a distraction for the media, but it is not so much in the locker room. The prevailing thought in the locker room is probably a lot more like: “Dang, you got caught. That sucks.”
Imagine going into work after getting arrested for drug possession and joking with your coworkers about it, and then your manager’s response to clients when asked about it is that it’s a pending legal matter that they won’t get into it because of rules and regulations. (Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid mentioned “rules and regulations” seven times in his aforementioned Wednesday press conference.)
Here is what the CBA explicitly says regarding discipline for drug use:
No Club may impose any discipline against a player, including but not limited to terminating the player’s Player Contract, as a result of that Player’s violation of the Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Sub-stances or the NFL Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse, or for failing any drug test...
Those rules and regulations basically state that the Chiefs can’t discipline Bowe unless it explicitly says they can in his contract for such an offense. Bowe will likely just go into the NFL’s substance abuse program now, and the Chiefs won’t be able to comment about that either.
In Stage One of the NFL’s substance abuse program (opens PDF), Bowe will get evaluated by medical personnel to determine if he requires clinical treatment plan. If he does not, Bowe will be dismissed from the program within 90 days. That’s it.
|NFL's Substance Abuse Program/Policy|
|Stages||Duration||Violation||Testing||Penalty For Violation|
|Stage 1||90 Days||Positive test or self-referred.||Subject to testing||Fine|
|Stage 2||24 Months/2 Seasons||1 positive test, not dismissed in stage 1.||Up to 10 Times Per Month||4-6 Game Suspension and Fine|
|Stage 3||Career||Total of 2 positive tests or program violations.||Up to 10 Times Per Month||Minimum 1-year suspension|
|Banishment||Minimum 1 year||Total of 3 positive tests or program violations||-||-|
Bowe’s arrest is a bunch of misplaced hullabaloo—no one within the NFL community really cares. The only reason the team would be concerned is if Bowe was at risk of missing games. However, Reid said twice on Wednesday that Bowe would play and start on Sunday.
Bowe will have to go through the legal process, but he’ll probably be out of the substance abuse program by the Super Bowl. He’ll have to be more careful, but he doesn’t have to make any major life changes.
Unless the NFL makes a concerted effort to clean up its image and crackdown on a large population of recreational drug users, this is a non-story. So what if Bowe is the latest bonehead in a long line of boneheads to get caught with drugs in his car? The Chiefs are going to keep paying him to play on Sunday.
Marijuana is now legal in some form in 21 states, according to Governing.com. The NFL shouldn’t even waste the time and money putting marijuana users in its substance abuse program. It has more important things to worry about—like keeping players from driving drunk or committing violent crimes.
The NFL and the NFLPA have been in discussions since August about strengthening the DUI policy according to Alex Marvez of FOX Sports , but that was secondary to the two sides working out a policy for HGH testing. The two sides are still battling over elements of that policy.
Maybe the league can extend an olive branch to the players by removing penalties for recreational marijuana use in return for tougher penalties for DUIs and other violations. A large swath of players who are in the league’s substance abuse program are probably there because of their marijuana use, and plenty of other users aren’t even in the program, so it could be a big bargaining chip for the league.
In the next 10 years, the NFL is going to be under extreme pressure to maintain its popularity and continue to grow into new markets. Things like hazing, DUIs and violent crimes give the league a black eye, but it’s about time they stopped giving themselves a black eye by continuing the charade that is their substance abuse policy for the recreational use of marijuana.
Bowe's marijuana use and arrest is not going to impact him or his team on Sunday—win or lose. If his attorney is right, Bowe is 100 percent innocent (h/t FOX 4 Newsroom), so it should impact him even less.