When it comes to NFL drug problems, the NFL continually fails to deal with their biggest issue.
Rejecting his appeal, the league suspended Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for a full year after he tested positive for marijuana, per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network. The problem is, this same exact league supports and enables a systematic drug-abuse problem on a weekly basis.
The only difference is that the drug abuse the NFL loves is one that helps its profit margin.
Now, this is not a column about Gordon and whether he deserves his yearlong suspension. Instead, let's use this as a very good opportunity to realize that Gordon's drug problem isn't even close to the biggest drug problem the NFL has.
When a player is suspended for using drugs, the mentality is "next man up." Sure, it might hurt your favorite team or your fantasy team (the horror!), but it doesn't upset the bottom line of the NFL as a whole.
Because of this, we look at each suspension as that player's own personal failings as a human being. In the best-case scenario, maybe the more sympathetic among us will allow that drug abuse is actually an illness, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and abusers need help far more than they need derision and a rolled-up newspaper swatted on their nose.
So, when a player is suspended here or there, the NFL gets to pass the buck off as the player's problem without acknowledging its own (much worse) issues.
What Drug Culture Really Looks Like
Earlier this year, Michael O'Keeffe of the New York Daily News reported that the Drug Enforcement Agency was "quietly investigating" the league's addiction to handing out painkillers like Skittles, and some of the details might have shocked the very conscience had anyone really bothered to care.
The investigation is a direct result of a lawsuit filed by numerous former players against the league, alleging that the NFL created a culture that not only encouraged and enabled drug use but created an almost mandatory drug-use atmosphere.
The suit filed by Silverman and his colleagues is a catalogue of horrors. Court papers show team doctors and trainers widely distributed painkillers, sleeping pills and other drugs without warning players about the risk of addiction or the dangers of mixing powerful medications. McMahon, according to the lawsuit, became hooked on pain pills, at one point gulping down more than 100 Percocets each month, even in the offseason.
The drugs numbed pain, allowing hurt players to return to the field, but they also led to aggravated injuries and created long-term health problems, the lawsuit claims.
One of the craziest anecdotes from the lawsuit (original text here via The San Francisco Chronicle) is told by former Chicago Bears offensive lineman Keith Van Horne, who was called into the trainer's office and berated for getting a legitimate painkiller prescription from his own personal doctor.
Go read that paragraph again.
The Bears trainer, Fred Caito—supposedly a medical professional—was incensed that a player had gotten a drug he needed in a completely legal fashion. Why, you might ask?
Van Horne says that Caito had ordered painkillers in bulk for the Bears at the beginning of the season using players' names (including Van Horne's) and that the recent purchase of (completely legal) painkillers had triggered a DEA letter.
Let's break this down: A player got into trouble with his team trainer for getting prescription drugs the exact way he was supposed to, but the team never got in trouble for treating a Schedule II narcotic like some people treat toilet paper at Sam's Club.
Former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley explained it to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News, saying, "There was a room set up near the locker room and you got in line. Obviously we were grown adults, and we had a choice, but when a team doctor is saying this will take the pain away, you trust them."
This is not an oddity in NFL circles, nor is it new.
In late November 2011, ESPN was singing the praises of "wonder drug" Toradol as the next big thing in NFL medicine. One week later, Ken Belson of The New York Times reported on a number of former players, including former New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn, who were suing the league because of the abuse of Toradol with claims that it led to further injury, pain and suffering.
We took it like clockwork,” said Horn, a receiver who played 12 years with the Kansas City Chiefs, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons and who says he now experiences bouts of dizziness and blackouts. “They don’t meet with you to tell you what will happen five years later. Had I known that there were going to be complications, I wouldn’t have taken the shots.
nfl wants players to sign waiver for toradol shots?!? once was on team where there were as many coaches as players in the vitamin T line.— tim hasselbeck (@tthasselbeck) December 12, 2012
The more things change...
Pain is an NFL Reality...So are Painkillers
Basically, the NFL policy and enforcement thereof points to a belief that NFL players must not be smart enough to take care of their own bodies, so the league should just do it for them. In practice, though, that often means using players up until they become husks of their former selves.
Earlier this summer, Bleacher Report's own Matt Bowen described how he dealt with pain throughout his playing career, and he also went into detail about some of the available options that he didn't take advantage of.
Pain is a reality of NFL life, but as long as one can get back out on the field the NFL doesn't care.
In his book Slow Getting Up, former NFL receiver Nate Jackson recounted this tale from his time as a Denver Bronco while dealing with what he believed was a "mild hamstring strain":
I'm prescribed exercises, ice, meds and modalities. We good, Nate? Yeah, I guess we're good. But another week goes by and I make no progress. Greek [the team trainer] lets me know that my progress isn't jibing with the timeline that fits the protocol for "mild hamstring strain." That's what gets me thinking, what's wrong with me? Am I being a p---y or what? Greek says I should be ready to go, so I know that's what he's telling Coach every day when he gives him the injury report.
In reality, Jackson had an injury that another doctor would later tell him would only get better by resting. The Broncos went another route, however, injecting him with Lidocaine, dexamethasone and Kenalog.
For those keeping score at home, that's an anesthetic, an anti-inflammatory and immuno-suppressant steroid and an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid.
That's three major drugs...instead of rest.
All the while, the pressure was on Jackson by coaches and peers to get back out on the field as soon as possible. The team had decided it needed him, and the old adage is that no one helps the team in the cold tub.
Still, the outside pressure paled in comparison to the internal pressure Jackson put on himself. His livelihood and NFL dreams were on the line. Sure, he was an adult and made his own decisions, but the team did its best to make sure he wasn't getting all of the proper information he needed.
Instead of information, they just provided him with plenty of drugs.
Ouch. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson chronicles his extensive injury history http://t.co/TfWnwJ79AB— Scott Wells (@swells_) December 22, 2013
Jackson's book is a must-read, as it lays out how the NFL chewed him up and spit him out over the course of his career. Yet his story is not that unique. Take a look at this anecdote from former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon as part of the aforementioned lawsuit against the NFL:
Named Plaintiff Jim McMahon discovered for the first time in 2011 or 2012 that he had suffered a broken neck at some point in his career. He believes it happened during a 1993 playoff game when, after a hit, his legs went numb. Rather than sit out, he received medications and was pushed back on the field. No one from the NFL ever told him of this injury. In addition, he learned only a few years ago that he had broken an ankle while playing; at the time, he was told it was a sprain.
Pieces of info like Jackson and McMahon's stories should terrify just about anyone, and the damaging evidence continues to mount reading the lawsuit, as well as books like League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, which makes a pretty clear connection between the league and a casual attitude about the health of its players.
Understand that the NFL both encourages and creates drug-abuse problems in their athletes. They just want to control the drugs that are being abused.
How does the NFL move past this do-as-I-say/not-as-I-do drug policy? Part of it is simply moving into the 21st century and catching up to the rest of the country when it comes to their understanding of marijuana.
The NFL Needs to Turn Back from Its Anachronistic Stance on Marijuana
The league's Reefer Madness-era insistence that marijuana somehow deserves a harsher level of punishment than the drugs they push on their players on a daily basis is laughable at best and sinister at worst.
The San Francisco Chronicle referred to that same irony as it discussed Ricky Williams in 2007:
But if the NFL's suspension was just a dose of tough love, the league would also intercede in all addictions, even to legal products. We've yet to hear of a coach or player sanctioned for a vodka dependence, or anyone being breathalyzed at the hotel bar. Think they all know their limits?
If the NFL prides itself on curing Williams, or at least not enabling him, it should have a policy on painkiller addictions like the one Brett Favre revealed in 1996. At the sentencing for Andy Reid's two sons, the courtroom learned that the younger one, Britt, had become addicted to an array of substances after taking painkillers for a football injury at age 14. Could the game itself possibly be a gateway drug?
Williams' agent, Leigh Steinberg, once obliquely raised the question by pointing out that the Dolphins had used his client's body as "a battering ram." Williams has also admitted to a battle with depression and an extreme shyness that he once tried to correct with Paxil, which is purported to correct social-anxiety disorders.
As legalization efforts for the drug are already winning around the country, marijuana is legal in two NFL cities (Seattle and Denver) and decriminalized in many more (most recently in Washington, D.C.), meaning marijuana possession is worthy of little more than a parking ticket.
Ironically, of course, marijuana does have medicinal uses that would probably be incredibly helpful to the NFL and its players. In fact, it isn't wildly bizarre to imagine a hypothetical world where the NFL was handing out dope like they actually hand out pills.
Roger Goodell even talked about the potential of such a thing earlier this year, according to USA Today's Chris Strauss.
"I'm not a medical expert," Goodell said. "We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that. Our medical experts are not saying that right now."
While the NFL's medical experts aren't saying that, ABC News reported on the success of researchers at Hebrew University in Israel treating mice with a THC-like drug following head trauma. The NFL—in the middle of a concussion epidemic—might have use for that sort of thing.
On top of that, CNN listed seven other uses for medical marijuana, including a number that could help many NFL athletes, such as pain management, which is what the NFL is trying to accomplish by shooting up these young men with just about every other drug other than marijuana.
New study: "25% lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths after implementation of a medical marijuana law." Hope #NFL read that.— Eric Goodman (@EricGoodman) August 26, 2014
The NFL has the power and platform to lead on this issue. I might go so far as to say they have the imperative to as well. This is a potentially legitimate treatment for one of the biggest issues the NFL faces. They can't just turn their back thanks to an antiquated notion of the substance.
By the way, what exactly do the NFL medical experts say about the incredible use of painkillers and injections for NFL athletes? Why does marijuana only fit in if there is a "proper usage in any context" but the clearly improper use of Toradol and Percocet is A-OK?
This stance on drugs isn't just wishy-washy or hypocritical; it's dangerous and inflammatory toward the athletes.
Should the NFL change their existing drug policies?
The stigma of failing a drug test is, ironically, the exact kind of stigma that Jackson felt when he couldn't get on the field without taking drugs—I've let my team down. Only we look at those who fail drug tests like Gordon as thugs while we view the prescription-drug addicts of the NFL as real men, the doctors who shoot them up as professionals.
Gordon, like McMahon before him, exists in a culture where every single bump, sprain, break or pain is fixed with a needle or a pill. Down? Here's an upper. Up? Here's a downer. How, then, does a man like Gordon—who already had issues dating back to his college days—cope with life away from the readily available pharmaceuticals dispensed by his team staff?
If, on a 24/7 basis during the season, Gordon doesn't have to feel anything—physical or emotional—without some trainer or doctor ready to shove a chemical in his body, do we expect him (or anyone else) to treat their bodies with any more respect than their teams do?
If there's a drug for anything and everything, what is a player to do when there suddenly isn't?
I'm not advocating taking personal responsibility (or the punishment afterward) away from Gordon or anyone else. These are well-known policies of the NFL that those gentlemen and their peers know well. But, we shouldn't just cite the CBA and move on without questioning the wisdom of those policies.
It's not an excuse—not even close—for any of the players mentioned in this column, but maybe this is a chance to peek behind the curtain and take a new look at a system that is set up far more for the profitability of the league than it is for the health and safety of the players.
If the NFL wants to be credible on the matter of drugs, that system has to change.