Most NFL players won’t begin thinking about next season until April, when voluntary offseason workouts begin. But most is not all, and Browns’ receiver Josh Gordon is in the minority. In 2013, Gordon, then just 22 years old, led the NFL in receiving with 1,646 yards, despite playing just 14-of-16 regular season games. He followed a 237-yard performance versus Pittsburgh with a 261-yard game the following week. Gordon was named First-team All-Pro — A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas and Antonio Brown earned second-team All-Pro honors, for perspective — and was selected to the Pro Bowl, all at age 22, with Brandon Weeden throwing him the football.
Just prior to the start of the 2014 season, Gordon was suspended one year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy after failing a drug test for marijuana. The suspension was later reduced to 10 games and Gordon played just five games in 2014. The same offseason that he failed the marijuana drug test, Gordon was arrested for driving while impaired, and in Jan. 2015, the NFL announced a second one-year suspension for consuming alcohol while in the NFL’s substance abuse program.
That brings us to today. Despite his lengthy off-the-field record, Gordon has accomplished more in 35 NFL games than many receivers do over a full career. Gordon has received a ton of criticism — expectedly so, he did receive two full-year suspensions — but a deeper look at Gordon’s situation reveals glaring inconsistencies on the part of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL.
I am not writing this to defend Josh Gordon in a legal sense. Although marijuana seems on its way to nationwide legalization, Gordon knew he could not be using the drug, and accepted full responsibility for his actions. The same goes for the DWI charge, which is, of course, more serious. Gordon was pulled over for going 50 in a 35, and while there was no accident, DWI is illegal, dangerous and totally unacceptable. He was suspended for all of 2015 after he consumed alcohol when he knew he was not supposed to. Again, irresponsible beyond excuse. But what followed was what I take issue with.
After his most recent suspension, major figures in the sports world began characterizing Gordon as someone “who needs help.” Charles Barkley stated his fear that Gordon “could die” if he doesn’t change his lifestyle. Stephen A. Smith blasted Gordon on ESPN. And Cris Carter said that his concern is Gordon’s “well being” and that “we are dealing with addiction.”
Before I go any further, let me point out that the three aforementioned people are Charles Barkley, Stephen A. Smith and Cris Carter. Barkley, in 2008, plead guilty to DUI and was sentenced to ten days in jail after driving with a BAC two times the legal limit and running a red light (he told the police he was in a hurry because he wanted to receive oral sex from his passenger). Barkley was 45 years old at the time. Josh Gordon was a 22-year-old when he was pulled over for speeding and charged with DWI. Stephen A. Smith was suspended from ESPN after he offered that women may provoke domestic abuse following Ray Rice’s 2014 arrest. Lastly, Cris Carter, speaking at the NFL rookie symposium, literally told the NFL rookies to secure a “fall-guy” who will take the blame if a player is ever involved in a legal incident. These three have negative credibility in terms of determining when someone needs help. What’s next? Aaron Hernandez offering legal advice? I mean, come on.
Gordon actually addressed Barkley, Smith and Carter specifically in an open-letter published in January 2015. In this well-written, candid letter, Gordon essentially noted that he had never met any of these people urging him to get help. He also expounded upon the failed alcohol test. Gordon claimed that “… calling [him] a social drinker would be an exaggeration” and that he drank “two beers and two drinks” on a private flight with friends, because he “… thought that the league-imposed restriction on drinking had expired at the end of the regular season.” Read the letter yourself. I think you will find it genuine. At the end of the piece, Gordon asserts, “What I do know is the following: I am not a drug addict; I am not an alcoholic; I am not someone who deserves to be dissected and analyzed like some tragic example of everything that can possibly go wrong for a professional athlete.” He’s right. This is a guy in his early 20s who has faced two year-long suspensions despite having not hurt anyone or anything other than his own reputation.
Josh Gordon broke NFL rules and he broke the law. He deserved to face the consequences for his actions, which he did. The extent of Gordon’s punishment though, reveals significant inconsistency and disproportionality by the NFL and Commissioner Goodell. In 2009, receiver Donte’ Stallworth was charged with DUI manslaughter after he struck and killed a pedestrian while legally drunk and under the influence of marijuana. Goodell suspended him for one season. One season for killing a man. Josh Gordon hasn’t killed anyone. In 2014, Adrian Peterson was charged with reckless or negligent injury to a child. Photos of his four-year-old son’s body showed significant scratches and scabs, caused by Peterson. It took an arbitrator’s ruling in favor of the NFL to ban Peterson from playing that season. Like Stallworth, Peterson faced more lenient discipline than that of Josh Gordon, but Gordon never harmed a four-year-old child.
And then there’s Greg Hardy, the current Dallas Cowboys, who was arrested for allegedly assaulting, strangling and threatening his ex-girlfriend. Nearly 50 police photos were released showing the victim’s battered body. Hardy was found guilty, but his charges were dropped on appeal, not because he was presumed to be innocent, but because the victim did not appear in court to testify. Hardy received just a four-game suspension and later made jokes about women to the media this past season. Look at the police photos. Goodell suspended him four games for beating up a woman. Josh Gordon never beat up anyone. If Goodell’s reasoning for Hardy’s light punishment was that his charges were expunged from his record in court, then why suspend Hardy at all? If the idea was that Hardy was legally innocent, then what are the four games for? Ray Rice, like Hardy, ultimately had his assault charges dropped in his domestic incident, and won an appeal to overturn his indefinite suspension (Goodell originally suspended Rice for just two games after video surfaced of him punching his fiancée).
Is Roger Goodell just arbitrarily choosing numbers and using them for suspensions? Where are the standards? Where is the consistency? Goodell is a cavalier commissioner whose ineptness in handling discipline is embarrassing to professional sports. “Kill a man while intoxicated and then come catch passes for us!” “Beat your girlfriend and sign a cushy one-year, $11.3 million contract.” “A 22-year-old smoking weed, drinking, not hurting anyone and taking full responsibility for childish mistakes? Hell no. One year ban”.
People make mistakes and Josh Gordon is no different. But did Gordon’s mistakes warrant his punishment — and the public scrutiny that came with it — when being compared to others who face discipline from the NFL? I don’t think so.