Cleveland’s Josh Gordon might be the most talented wide receiver in the NFL, but he won’t be on the field this season. He’s not even allowed near team facilities. When Gordon entered the NFL in 2012, the NFL placed him under strict observation after Baylor and Utah both cut him for smoking marijuana. Once he touched turf, Gordon displayed tremendous promise, tying for second in touchdowns among rookie wideouts in 2012, leading the entire league in receiving yards in 2013 and burning defenders so badly he earned the nickname “Flash.”
About that 2013 season: Gordon missed the first two games after testing positive for codeine, a development portending disaster. Since then, his career has disintegrated into endless drug tests and violations. In 2014, he lost ten games – reduced from an initial season-long ban – for smoking marijuana and received probation after a DWI violation. This winter, he was suspended for the 2015 season after four drinks with his teammates and one of his coaches on a flight to Las Vegas.
“I thought that the league-imposed restriction on drinking had expired at the end of the regular season,” he wrote in an open letter in January. “Upon landing, I received the all-too-familiar notice by phone that I was to report to a testing location within four hours. I failed the test, obviously, and the rest is history.”
While on its face, Gordon’s tale seems like another sob story about squandered potential, it actually points to the injustice of the NFL’s draconian drug policy. Despite floundering in scandals regarding what players do to others (concussions, domestic violence), the NFL intensely polices what players do with their own bodies to the point of absurdity. Gordon had to pee in a cup 180 times in his first two years in the league. He passed all but a few of those tests; last season, the one busting him for THC registered barely 16 nanograms per milliliter, almost ten times lower than the World Anti-Doping Agency’s benchmark of 150 nanograms but still unacceptable by NFL standards. But things are easing up. Last year, the players union achieved a landmark revision of the NFL’s drug policies, increasing the threshold for marijuana tests and reducing penalties for violations.
“The main achievement was certainty: The penalties were made consistent, there are clearer benchmarks for getting out of the drug program and there’s more transparency regarding the science,” says NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah. “The players also moved the focus to getting players support rather than receiving punishment.”
The new policies saved Gordon’s 2014 season, but they couldn’t save him from the mistake of drinking alcohol on a plane to Vegas. Still, Gordon has said and done the right things on a public apology tour, even voluntarily checking himself into rehab last summer, where he was told to talk to a horse. “It’s definitely some hippie shit,” he told ESPN The Magazine. This offseason, he trained with NFL legend Randy Moss to stay in game shape. Despite Gordon’s public flagellation and the tenuous evidence for his suspensions, Cris Carter (“I really think that the only thing that’s going to help the kid is if they release him”) and Charles Barkley (“Josh Gordon is going to die if he keeps going on this road he’s going”) have already written him off as a lost cause. Gordon, however, insists he has no real problem, and no one has yet proven otherwise.
“If I have a ‘problem,’ it is that I am only 23 years old – with a lot left to learn,” Gordon wrote in his open letter. “And I truly believe that what I am going through right now will only make me stronger. I believe that my future is bright.”