Josh Gordon’s story is not a football story. Maybe it never should’ve been

The reality is that professional sports teams are not the healthiest environments for men and women with mental health issues, like Josh Gordon, writes Tara Sullivan.
The reality is that professional sports teams are not the healthiest environments for men and women with mental health issues, like Josh Gordon, writes Tara Sullivan.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

FOXBOROUGH — Nobody wanted it to end this way.

And let’s face it, this feels like the end of Josh Gordon’s NFL career.

While Gordon was announcing via Twitter he would be “stepping away” from football to focus on his mental health, simultaneous reports said Gordon was merely getting the jump on an imminent suspension for violating the terms of his reinstatement after previous violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. The latest suspension, now official, is indefinite because of Gordon’s history, one that includes a previous indefinite suspension over multiple failed drug tests, and if the 27-year-old is forced to miss another two years of football, it’s tough to imagine he’d make it back to the field.


As if that mattered.

Really, this is not a football story. Not anymore. Maybe it never should have been, not even back in September when the Patriots traded with Cleveland for the troubled wide receiver. As much as that deal yielded some very good football results across 11 games in New England, as much as it buoyed our hope that both Gordon and the Patriots would benefit by this marriage of extreme talent and supreme structure, Thursday’s news is a stark reminder of just how fragile it all was, a reminder that what we need to hope for now has nothing to do with yards and catches, but everything to do with health and well-being.

Related: A timeline of Josh Gordon’s history with substance abuse and suspensions

Gordon’s statement was more heartbreaking than it was shocking. “I take my mental health very seriously at this point to ensure I remain able to perform at the highest level,” he wrote. “I have recently felt like I could have a better grasp on things mentally. With that said, I will be stepping away from the football field for a bit to focus on my mental health. I would like to thank Coach [Bill] Belichick, Mr. [Robert] Kraft, as well as countless others within the Patriots organization for their continued support. I want to thank my fans for their support as well as I continue down the path getting back to 100%.”


Support is what he needs now, not blame. The grip of addiction is a powerful, scary force, one you know Gordon would so much rather be free of, one he has tried so many times to escape, only to be back in this position. Nor does there need to be blame on the Patriots, who by all accounts and appearances supported Gordon in all ways they could. Physically, they challenged him to be in what he called the best shape of his life. In the name of fraternity, they set him up with Tom Brady, as locker room neighbor, as extra practice teammate. They controlled his time with the media, limiting questions, but making sure he was available nonetheless.

But some things are too big to fix, especially in the midst of an NFL season.

The reality is that professional sports teams are not the healthiest environments for men and women with mental health issues. The pressure to perform, the adherence to rules, the rigid schedules and constant accountability can be particularly difficult for humans whose inner demons present much more challenging foes. The exhaustion of staving off anxiety long enough to stay focused can pull at your energy so much that there’s nothing left in reserve.


That’s where Gordon has admitted he’s turned to substances to help him cope — he’s looking to outrun a life that has been full of hardship since birth. As detailed in a November 2017 Sports Illustrated profile written as Gordon was returning from his first indefinite suspension, he never planned “on living past 18.”

“Not a chance,” he told reporter Ben Baskin, not after growing up in a crime-riddled, gang-infested section of Houston, where he learned to use marijuana, Adderall, Xanax, other prescription drugs, and, of course, alcohol on a daily basis.

He did survive. But thrive? That’s been so hard, another reminder that the blessings of speed, agility, and athleticism might present an outward appearance of success, but they guarantee nothing in the way of internal peace. Yet across the stops at various high schools and different colleges that Gordon’s athletic prowess took him, as he entered the NFL’s supplemental draft and landed in Cleveland, Gordon appears to have hurt no one other than himself. In many ways, his experience exposes the shortcomings of professional sports drug policies that are only focused on competitive advantages and competitive imbalance, policies that have codified how to punish perceived cheating but can’t quite figure out how, or if, they can be a safety net for mental health.

Gerry Schmidt is a counselor and specialist in substance addiction who serves as president of the National Association for Addiction Professionals. As he said, being a professional athlete in recovery can make for a difficult combination.

“When you’ve got someone that is high profile, recovery is a very personal thing. When it’s aired in the public, everyone gets to have their own view on how they’re doing, you know?” Schmidt said. “Let’s say if I was in recovery, I could do my recovery and other than my family and close friends probably nobody gives a [crap], you know what I mean? Or would care to comment on it.”


But in the NFL, where entire careers (including this one) can be based on commentary, it’s hard to be the individual in that spotlight, where first and foremost, what people want from you is to perform on the field.

“Let’s assume Josh in this case is in recovery, and he’s not using. He’s still in an environment where, basically, what they’re interested in — I don’t care what management and coaches say — they want to win and they want to make money and he’s a tool for that happening,” Schmidt said. “Sure, they want all the pieces of their machinery working well, but they’ll tolerate so much for that 60 minutes a week. They’re part of the problem. They can’t deny it. But the ultimate responsibility is on the individual. . . .

“Recovery has to be first.”

Gordon appears to be making it a priority again. Here’s hoping it helps, not for the sake of football, but for the sake of his sanity.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.