Martavis Bryant knows he has to break out of this pattern of self-destructive behavior. And Josh Gordon is the first to admit he can be his own worst enemy.
Marijuana and alcohol offenses have already cost these two hyper-talented NFL receivers dearly. The Steelers’ Bryant will be out the entire 2016 slate (on top of four games a season ago), while Gordon has missed games in four of the past five years, including indefinite suspensions in 2011 at Baylor, during RG3’s Heisman year, and again in 2015 with the Browns. After multiple failed drug tests, both now stand at the mercy of Roger Goodell for reinstatement.
The situations provide both a commissioner and a league increasingly under fire a much-needed moment to claim the moral high ground, even as public attitudes toward pot continue moving toward widespread legalization. Yet the NFL has little appetite for changing its byzantine substance abuse policy. If anything, the league will happily suspend stoners like Bryant and Gordon to distract the public from its real drug problem: painkillers.
Teams, it seems, are content with pumping players full of pills and injections without regard for the long-term effects. Narcotic treatments like Percocet and OxyContin can cause addiction in a matter of weeks, and are a major contributor to the country’s current heroin crisis. All the while, trainers hand them out like candy. From a recent story in The Washington Post:
“Different teams would have issues about how much apparel they’d want to give out, but with the prescription drugs, it was the same everywhere,” [former offensive lineman Rex] Hadnot said. “I was never told ‘No.’ ”
He got meds from doctors and trainers alike.
“I could get ’em from whomever,” he said. “Even trainers that were not the head trainers.”
He said trainers would ask, “What do you need?”
“Where I grew up, that’s a drug dealer’s question,” he said.
Anti-inflammatories like Toradol can lead to stroke, heart attack, intestinal bleeding, and kidney failure. Still, lines for the shot can stretch as long as 20 to 30 guys on game day. Despite the frightening side effects of these medications, pain management has become inextricably linked with football functionality. In fact, prescription drug abuse is so rampant that the DEA has conducted raids of team locker rooms. A growing number of broken men are being churned out of this culture.
In light of such rampant, league-sanctioned pill-popping, it is wholly disingenuous to vilify someone like Bryant, who is coping with clinical depression, or Gordon, who claimed he failed one test due to secondhand smoke from a friend’s joint, and another following confusion regarding when his NFL-mandated alcohol abstinence ended.
Make no mistake, the league is actively sweeping its painkiller addiction under the rug while playing situations like these for PR points by feeding into America’s tacit support of the prison-industrial complex. Indeed, the three-stage program outlined in the NFL’s drug policy is eerily reminiscent of California’s controversial “Three Strikes” law. Both introduce escalating penalties for repeat offenders, regardless of context, culminating in an indefinite suspension in pro football and a 25-years-to-life prison sentence under California law (with the latter infinitely worse than the former, of course). Both also assume the best way to reduce recidivism is to increase consequences, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.
It seems these systems, and those who oversee them, are less interested in rehabilitating people than they are in doling out punishment. If the league or legislature truly wants to combat drugs or felonies, investing more into education for at-risk communities would be a much more productive use of resources. Otherwise, you wind up with a classic case of treating the symptoms (criminal activity) at the expense of the disease (poverty or mental illness).
All of this underscores just how misplaced the NFL’s priorities are. Whether we’re talking about domestic violence, deflated footballs, or drug abuse, the NFL’s obsession with its own self-image over anything has forced it into increasingly awkward public postures, where the systematic pressure to dull pain is accepted near without question, but recreational marijuana continues to be vilified. Meanwhile, which of those represents a greater threat to Goodell’s beloved integrity of the game? Hint: It’s not the weed.
Owing to a combination of legality and efficacy, pills certainly have more of an impact on the league’s bottom line. By the same token, if painkillers were policed like pot, it would invariably threaten the on-field product; more players would be sitting out for longer periods of time. You wouldn’t see guys suiting up despite broken bones or torn muscles.
At a certain point, the line between performance-enabling and performance-enhancing gets awfully blurry. To suggest Toradol is OK but human growth hormone (HGH) is not is specious, at best. The fact that some teams make players sign a liability release to get these injections should tell you all you need to know about how harmless NFL doctors think they are.
Any proclamations the commissioner makes about player safety are — at this point, and knowing what we know about the league’s PR inner workings — entirely hypocritical. By now, it should be bracingly obvious that the NFL views players more as equipment to be maintained (and ultimately replaced) than as human beings demanding dignity.
Sadly, all of this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Because the collective bargaining agreement runs through the 2020 season, the NFLPA has little leverage in negotiating painkiller reform in the immediate future. Meanwhile, the league is sure to push other, more insidious narratives — Bryant and Gordon completing the hero’s journey, beating their supposed addiction to eventually re-assuming their rising-star statuses — in an effort to distract from the much more dangerous elephant in the room.
Until the league acknowledges the debilitating damage painkillers forces its athletes to endure, watching football with anything resembling a clean conscience — assuming that was even still possible — stands to become much more difficult.
By Paul Sulzer - Sports Illustrated/March 28, 2016
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Elephant in the Room: The NFL is Using Marijuana to Hide Their Painkiller Dilemma