To understand why Josh Gordon's appeal was denied (per Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports 1), and why he will sit out one full calendar year, you first have to understand the man who ostensibly made the Gordon decision: Harold Henderson.
I've known Henderson since he came into the NFL decades ago. I broke the story of Henderson joining the league when I was working at The Washington Post. I know him well and respect him a great deal. I knew Gordon's appeal would be rejected because I know Henderson.
Not because Henderson is unfair—he's the opposite. Henderson is easily one of the most decent, intelligent and fair men I've ever known. He's a graduate of Harvard Law School and has been a part of every aspect of NFL life. He's dealt with the union, players, coaches, owners—everyone. There isn't a part of NFL existence over the past 25 years that Henderson hasn't touched and, mostly, made better.
But I knew Gordon's appeal was doomed because Henderson isn't a man who believes in excuses. The A-sample, B-sample stuff doesn't fly with someone like Henderson. You must also remember that Henderson was instrumental in negotiating with the union many aspects of the modern drug policy. Henderson knows the policy, the rules—all of it—better than almost anyone.
This is what I think Henderson saw: a guy who broke the rules, a guy who's been busted smoking pot going back to college, several times, and got caught again.
I also believe, knowing Henderson, that a part of him believed Josh Gordon needed to be disciplined this way, because he needed saving.
It's just pot. I get that. And I get that pot is nothing compared to the Toradol players inject into their bodies and that Ray Rice got two games for knocking his then-fiancee unconscious. Yet while the appearance of a guy beating up a woman and getting two measly games while Gordon smokes weed and gets a year is bad, those are the rules. The drug punishments are automatic triggers. This is the way of the NFL. Adapt or get busted.
But I also think Gordon was heading down a potentially dangerous path. Gordon knew that if he smoked weed, he was gone, yet weed was in his system. You can believe the secondhand smoke excuse all you want, but Gordon's track record with pot is long. As one league official explained to me: Gordon doesn't get the benefit of the doubt.
And what's also lost in all of this is that Gordon recently was arrested for driving under the influence. That part of Gordon's history is conveniently forgotten by his supporters.
Cleveland fans are blaming the NFL, yet the Browns made a series of mistakes with Gordon. They knew that Gordon faced suspension but failed to draft a wide receiver in anticipation of probable discipline. Then they let Gordon take practice reps away from others, again knowing there was a good chance Gordon was gone.
Pages 24-25 of the substance abuse policy outline the procedures for an appeal. It's extremely complex stuff and very time-consuming. The Browns have known for months Gordon was suspended pending appeal, yet they did nothing to prepare for this possibility. That's not the NFL's fault.
It also seems as if Gordon was unable to stop smoking pot despite knowing that smoking it would lead to the temporary termination of his career. Throw in the alleged DWI, and it's not insane to say that Henderson may have saved more than Gordon's football life. He may have saved his career, and he may have saved much more.
Gordon still doesn't seem to get it. "I'd like to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Cleveland Browns organization and our fans," he said in a statement released through the union. "I am very disappointed that the NFL and its hearing office didn't exercise better discretion and judgment in my case."
He's still blaming others for him having pot in his system.
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Maybe the year away from football will allow Gordon to enter rehab and put things in perspective. Again, the NFL should revisit its marijuana policies—allowing players to use it for medicinal reasons—but I think Gordon had a problem, and his pot use, combined with a DWI, indicated something worse than a dude who just smoked a few blunts.
Henderson was strict when it came to some of the NFL's policies, but he was also compassionate. At one point he ran the rookie symposium, where current and former players speak to incoming rookies about the rigors and possible pitfalls of NFL life. What I remember about Henderson was that he wanted players to constantly learn: what it was like to be a better player, better man, better father.
I think Henderson's decision will help Gordon do just that—save Gordon from himself.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.