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The NFL’s Substance Abuse Policy Should Stand As Is

Recently in the NFL, there have been many prominent lengthy, suspensions of players for violating the substance abuse policy, which bars players from taking either substances which enhance their performance in some way (PEDs), or players abusing substances such as drugs or alcohol, either in their free time, or to the point where it interferes with their obligations as a player. With players such as Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon both being handed almost multiple year-long suspensions for abusing certain substances such as alcohol, marijuana, etc., is it time to revisit the league’s stance on these issues? Are suspensions such as these justified, or should the league be more lenient on what their players do in their free time? I want to divide the argument on substance abuse into two distinct parts – athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), and athletes taking substances which can be abused on recreational terms, such as drugs and alcohol.

To tackle the first half of the divide, I think that, for the most part, suspensions handed down for athletes using PEDs are justified. I do not think that any athlete on any team in any sport should be deliberately taking banned substances to give themselves an edge. However, as far as I am aware, there seems to be a supposed ‘grey area’ in the rulebook for some sports. When some athletes are handed down suspensions for using PEDs, they will say something along the lines of, “I’ve been using this forever, I never knew this was banned,” or “this substance has never come up on a test before, why has it come up now?” Whether they are blatantly lying to try and save face or are telling the truth, I do not know. Whether the suspensions are justified in terms of the substance they are using, I do not know. What I do know, is that it is up to the athletes, the team organizations and any involved personnel to be knowledgeable of the current rules and to act accordingly by them. That trend is going to come up again later.

On the flip side, we face the suspensions for abusing substances such as drugs and alcohol. This is a tricky position to battle, given not only do you have to account for the league’s stance on it, but you also must account for the legality of the substances themselves. For now, I am going to stick with the current laws, that federally across the United States, alcohol is a legal substance, and that marijuana is an illegal substance (most of the drug suspensions happen because of marijuana use, so I will use that as my baseline). The legality of those is a debate for another day.

I want to set my opinion straight on this half of the divide, before getting into specifics. I think that if you are going to put yourself up for hire by the NFL (or any professional sports team, for that matter), they are going to have established rules and guidelines that are in place for their players to follow, and you must follow them. It is a choice to be in the NFL. If you choose to subject yourself to this establishment, you must live by the rules set forth by them. Obviously, all rules are not the greatest for all parties involved, which is why rules get changed over time. However, the way to change a rule is not to act out against it, because all you are doing is jeopardizing yourself by being caught doing something illegal which you think should be legal. If you think NFL players should be allowed to drink all the alcohol they want and smoke all the marijuana they want, that’s fine. However, the league thinks otherwise, and they have good reason to think so. The NFL’s substance abuse policy (in the abusive sense) is in place to punish players who put themselves and their teams at risk by partaking in the consumption of abusive substances which have the potential to hinder a player’s performance or health. Given that the clubs which are hiring these players are paying very large sums of money for their productivity, these rules, in action, make complete sense. You don’t want to waste millions of dollars on a person who can’t show up on game day because he’s too high or too drunk, obviously. But, what if they do show up?

In an interview with GQ, Josh Gordon opened up about his battle with alcohol and marijuana and other illegal substances, and how they affected his play on the field. When asked how many of his games he could remember that he had something in his system, his response was, “Every game. Probably every game of my career.” He went on to describe himself as a “highly functioning” alcoholic, drinking multiple shots before practice or before games, in order to warm up. He did this, all en route to setting four NFL records, to becoming a First-team All-Pro, to being selected to the Pro Bowl. Every single game of Josh Gordon’s career, from high school to college to the NFL, Josh Gordon has been on something.

Okay, clearly doing drugs does not make you amazing at sports. The same might not be the case for the 1982 Cardinals, but let’s put that aside. When it comes to drugs, or alcohol, or any other substance, nobody should be using substances to the point of dependency, or to the point of putting your life at risk. Especially in cases where you operate in a system where people are dependent on your output for one reason or another. There is clear risk in drafting or signing players who have a history of substance abuse, because we know how volatile and undependable they can be. However, in certain standout examples, that might not be the case. Then the argument shifts to overall health, and we find ourselves in the same scenario. In the end, I think that if you are going to play in the NFL, or any other professional league, you need to be clean. End of story.