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The NFL, Josh Gordon, Drug Testing, and Second Chances

Commissioner Roger Goodell has another chance to do the right thing.

by David Matthews
Jul 29 2014, 9:10pm

Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

"In Stage One, there shall be no right to challenge the results of the Test and the Medical Director shall determine in his discretion whether failure or refusal to Test or an attempt to tamper with the results constitutes a player's failure to comply in Stage One subjecting the player to the discipline set forth in Article I." - The NFL's drug policy and program for substance abuse.

There's a lot going on in the official drug policy of the league. (You can read the whole thing here if you're a masochist.) It contains instructions for the chain of custody for urine samples, the acceptable levels (in nanograms!) of a substance that can be in the sample, how people are notified, the fines for various offenses, a warning that the commissioner will punish you on top of whatever sentences a court hands down, and so on. It's the sort of stuff you might expect out of a document detailing how to handle nuclear launch codes. Someone cheating at football is serious business.

Hey, want to hear Stephen A. Smith talk about how women are partly to blame for domestic violence? Didn't think so. Read more.

There are stages of intervention for the offenders of this policy, which only applies to players and not coachesfront office personnel, or owners. There are three of them, and the third one is the harshest: You automatically get suspended for the year and are placed on a list for the rest of your career. This is the situation that Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon is in after testing positive for marijuana (as a result of secondhand smoke, he'll argue). Even if he wins his appeal and gets to play for the Browns this season—and let's hope against hope that he does, because he is an electric player—Gordon would still be in this third stage. He would still be subject to routine testing (up to ten times a month; that's a lot of urine) that would undoubtedly mess up his day-to-day life to an exceptional degree. He'd still be subject to the whims of the "A" and "B" bottles.

These bottles are going to be the inspiration for a lot of fantasy football team names. Let's just have Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk explain

Urine samples routinely are split into two bottles, the "A" bottle and the "B" bottle. If the "A" bottle generates a positive result, the "B" bottle is tested. Amazingly, the "B" bottle doesn't have to independently show a violation. Instead, the substance abuse policy states that the "'B' bottle Test need only show that the substance, revealed in the 'A' bottle Test, is evident to the 'limits of detection' to confirm the results of the 'A' bottle Test."


For Gordon, the "A" bottle showed a concentration of 16 ng/ml, only one nanogram per milliliter above the limits of 15. The "B" bottle showed a concentration of 13.6 ng/ml—less than the threshold.

But because the "A" bottle was labeled "A" and not "B" and because the "B" bottle was labeled "B" and not "A", the end result is a positive and a minimum one-year banishment from the NFL. Flip the bottles when it's time to apply the labels, and Gordon isn't facing a suspension.

Got all of that? In the same article, Florio says that his source claims that Gordon passed over 70 drug tests before the "failed" one. No wonder he's appealing.

As everyone has noted this week, the NFL suspended Ray Rice for just two games for beating the everliving hell out of the woman who is now his wife. It would appear that the league thinks that Gordon smoking weed is worse than what Rice did by a factor of eight, and that's simply absurd. (Apparently, Jenay Rice asked commissioner Roger Goodell to take it easy on her husband, but if he followed her wishes it just shows that the NFL's policy on domestic violence is more flexible than its policy toward drugs.)

It's perfectly legal to possess and consume marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado. Everyone from the New York Times editorial board to the editorial board of Noisey thinks weed should be legal. One day, Americans everywhere will be able to smoke marijuana freely, maybe even NFL players. And when that day comes, it'll be a relief for them, since some THC would probably go a long way toward alleviating the aches and pain caused by the routine violence of football games and practices. But that's not the world we live in, and for now players will have to go on self-medicating in secret.

The NFL can sometimes be seen as a microcosm for our society: You've got the super rich squeezing those below them for all they're worth and a system that often grinds people to bits for seemingly minor offenses. The more the league avoids adopting the worst aspects of the courts and the prison-industrial complex, the better. The NFL messed up the Rice suspension, but Gordon's case gives the league another chance to do the right thing. Hey Goodell: Let Gordon play. And fix that stupid labeling system. 

David Matthews thinks there are bigger fish to fry. Follow him on Twitter.

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