Josh Gordon has a problem.
That’s been obvious for a long time, and the Patriots’ wide receiver hasn’t been shy about discussing it.
“I didn’t want to feel anxiety, I didn’t want to feel fear,” Gordon told GQ in a 2017 interview about a lifelong struggle with addiction that followed him to the NFL. “So you self-medicate with Xanax, with marijuana, codeine — to help numb those nerves so you can just function every day.”
But now Gordon is gone, from the team and the NFL, for the foreseeable future, and it’s clearer than ever that the NFL has a problem, too: a bizarre, antiquated obsession with its players’ marijuana use.
Gordon seems like a troubled guy who, like so many people, has been unable to beat back the disease of addiction. That he’s tested positive so many times with so much on the line speaks to the undeniable power of addiction itself.
The specifics of the drug program violation that led to Gordon’s suspension were not disclosed. But the indefinite ban was revealed shortly after he announced that he was taking some time away from game to get his mental health in order.
Substance abuse suspensions in the NFL ratchet up with each new violation, and Gordon’s prior infractions involved drugs that are legal in many circumstances: marijuana, alcohol, prescription cough syrup. Whatever led to this latest failed test, the things that got Gordon to the point where his career appears to be over are things an awful lot of people smoke and drink without a second thought. (Gordon also pleaded guilty to drunken driving in 2014 — the kind of thing that should get you suspended — but he was already serving a yearlong ban for . . . marijuana.)
But you can’t talk about Gordon’s suspension without acknowledging that it didn’t have to come to this. You can’t talk about how many chances he’s had without asking yourself why, when it comes to weed, anybody is even keeping track. And you can’t pray for his recovery without wondering whether his cascading series of punishments have really fit what, in some cases, is no longer even a crime.
Gordon knew the rules and failed to follow them, but that doesn’t mean the rules make sense. In fact, they’re very different for the rest of us.
In Wareham on Friday, at the opening of Massachusetts’ latest pot shop, a line of eager marijuana enthusiasts waited to be among the first to buy. As long as they’re only artists or teachers — really almost anything that doesn’t require them to run a post route and high-point a deep ball over double coverage — they’ve got nothing to worry about.
This, it should go without saying, is bonkers.
If Josh Gordon were this good at his job — conservatively one of the 30 or so best in the entire world — in virtually any other industry, he could smoke as much weed as he pleased and nobody would care.
A Josh Gordon who happened to be the 30th-best architect in the world could draft blueprints with a joint hanging from his lips and it would matter not at all. A not-insignificant percentage of the world’s best-loved musicians are probably high right now.
But the field where men break each other’s bodies and brains for our amusement? That must remain sacred and unsullied by the scourge of, uh, something that’s now both legal and widely available in the place where Gordon plays his home games.
If you’re cool with watching players destroy each other for fun but are disgusted to learn that they sometimes smoke weed, well, that’s harder to defend than a perfectly executed mesh route.
A draconian ban on marijuana that can get you summarily tossed from a multimillion-dollar career only makes sense as some sort of puritanical extension of America’s shameful war on drugs, which imprisoned — and in fact still imprisons — men like Gordon but without his gifts. It’s a policy steeped in the implicit bias that makes fans turn black athletes caught with weed into “thugs” and white athletes caught with weed into stoners or party animals.
And it could scarcely emanate from an entity with less moral standing than the NFL. At least in part because of a history of smoking weed, Gordon now finds himself banished from a league where a linebacker can be arrested for allegedly battering his girlfriend — not for the first time — and get picked up two days later by a team with a racial slur for its name.
And so, though it sounds like a flip remark about something deadly serious, it is simply the plain truth laid bare:
In the eyes of the NFL, Josh Gordon would’ve been better off if he’d beaten up his girlfriend.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.