The substance-abuse policy gives full power over any disciplinary appeals to the Commissioner or his designee. When it comes to crafting a specific punishment, however, it’s unclear how much discretion the designated hearing officer has.
For players (like Browns receiver Josh Gordon) who are in Stage III of the substance-abuse program, a player who tests positive “will be banished from the NFL for a minimum of one calendar year.”
The language is clear. “Will” doesn’t imply discretion or the ability to impose a suspension greater than zero games and fewer than 16.
Notwithstanding the apparently clear language of the policy, some league insiders believe the hearing officer can do whatever the hearing officer wants. We’ve asked the league whether that’s accurate.
A negotiated resolution of less than 16 games is permitted. The question is whether, absent a settlement, the hearing officer can conclude that Gordon violated the policy based on unique facts and a stringent threshold and suspend him for something less than 365 days.
Either way, the hearing officer’s decision is final, with only limited windows for challenging the suspension through the court system.