You don't have to feel bad for Josh Gordon to question whether he should be suspended. If the Browns' star receiver did indeed test positive for marijuana mere months after serving last season's NFL drug suspension (his appeal is still pending), that's his mistake and one he should have been able to avoid.
But while Gordon's alleged knucklehead decision falls on Gordon and no one else, the occasion of his trouble offers a chance to pose this important and underasked 2014 NFL question:
Should the NFL really still be punishing its players for smoking marijuana?
Treating marijuana use as a crime is backward thinking in this day and age. It is being legalized, state by state, for medicinal use, as research reveals its value as a pain reliever. Colorado has decriminalized it completely, choosing to treat it as a taxable industry for widespread community benefit. It's not fully legal everywhere, and federal law prohibits carrying it across state lines, but the idea of marijuana as some sort of evil drug that needs to be stamped out is clearly a dying one.
It's the medical aspect of the issue that should pique the NFL's interest. A league that claims to be invested more than ever in the safety and long-term health of its players should be fascinated by the opportunity to embrace a pain reliever that doesn't come with liver damage. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose team plays in another legalized-marijuana state, said at the Super Bowl in February that he thought the NFL needed to pay close attention to where the research on this leads.
"I would say that we have to explore and find ways to make our game a better game and take care of our players in whatever way possible," Carroll said. "Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved, we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this."
He's right. The NFL needs to be thinking about marijuana as a possible remedy to one of its most significant problems (pain), as opposed to being a problem in and of itself. The drug policy is outdated and needs to be examined. A one-year ban for weed just doesn't fit the crime in 2014, even if it is the negotiated punishment on the books for an alleged repeat offender like Gordon or Giants safety Will Hill (who also is appealing). The NFL should be on the vanguard here, because its employees are a group that would benefit substantially.
The good thing is that the league is at least open-minded on the topic. Sources tell me that the renegotiated NFL drug policy, which has yet to be finalized and announced due to a hang-up over arbitration of discipline, includes a higher threshold for a positive marijuana test and reduced punishments for violations regarding that drug. The NFLPA wants to look into what the medical research says about pot as a pain reliever, and the NFL has indicated that it's open to doing so as well.
"We will follow medicine, and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that," commissioner Roger Goodell said at a news conference in January. "Our medical experts are not saying that right now."
They should keep at it. I don't expect the NFL and its owners to be the group leading the charge for legalized marijuana. They just don't feel like those kinds of guys to me. But the hang-ups need to be overcome. Are teams really worried that their players would start showing up to practice high? Alcohol is legal now, and players aren't showing up to practice drunk every day. And if they did, presumably they'd get sent home and punished, as would anyone else who showed up to work drunk.
There are all kinds of ways for teams and coaches to make sure their players are handling their business seriously. Letting them use marijuana -- especially for pain relief and under supervision of team doctors -- wouldn't make that substantially more difficult, especially when you consider the extent to which marijuana use already goes on. If anything, reducing or eliminating suspensions for weed would benefit teams, which would have an easier time keeping their rosters whole.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not assuming Josh Gordon got wrongly popped for an attempt at pain relief. And I agree with those who would say that smoking it when you know you're one strike away from a one-year (or longer) suspension is an avoidable act of stupidity. But in general, I think the NFL's policy on "drugs of abuse" (i.e., not performance-enhancers) offers a stage for a deeper discussion. And I think it's one the NFL would do well to be leading.