Earlier this year, Colts owner Jim Irsay made a compelling case for compassion when it comes to addiction. For players subject to the substance-abuse policy and testing program, it doesn’t matter.
“These diseases, both alcoholism and addiction, much like bipolar or depression and different illnesses, are still not seen as real diseases,” Irsay told Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. “People shy away from seeking help because it’s viewed as being somewhat morally off the path, that they’ve lost their way. I really think the disease aspect gets lost when you’re talking about alcoholism and addiction; it’s not like you’re battling leukemia or a heart problem; it is that. But even in 2014, there’s still this stigma.
“That stigma gets carried forward and it’s unfortunate because people die and families get affected and people don’t seek treatment. It’s an unusual disease in the sense that the person has to diagnose himself. He has to realize that there’s this genetic disease you have to deal with through treatment. My grandfather and father both died of the disease, and you realize you’ve spent a lot of time on this path. Certainly, I have.”
If Browns receiver Josh Gordon has an addiction to marijuana, shouldn’t those same concepts apply to him? In theory, yes. As a practical matter, the NFL and NFLPA decided back in the Nancy Reagan “War on Drugs” days that the league should have the right to reach into a player’s bladder from time to time in order to police whether he has been smoking marijuana or taking other recreational substances that don’t enhance performance.
Fair or not, just or not, reasonable or not, the league and the union jointly decided long ago that the NFL would serve as the unofficial police force when it comes to the use of marijuana and other street drugs. So what if a player is in his own home, on his own time? The stone tablets from Park Avenue say, “Thou Shalt Not Wake And Bake.”
The challenge for the NFLPA will be to decide whether to attempt to secure relaxed standards regarding marijuana. Collective bargaining entails a give and take; if the union wants something, it must be prepared to give something up. The current system, which imposes a once-per-year test between April 20 and August 9 on players not in the program, can be easily navigated by players who want to smoke marijuana and who are able and willing to stop in the middle of March and quit until after their annual test has happened. The NFLPA must decide whether to give up something to the NFL in exchange for changes that ultimately help the small percentage of players who aren’t smart enough to quit in March, or who due to an addiction can’t.
Until that happens, players will real addictions will face the ultimate loss of employment for a full season, if they can’t produce clean urine up to 10 times per month. Meanwhile, Irsay will battle his own addiction issues without fear that, if the disease wins from time to time, he could eventually be kicked out of the league for a year.
And until the NFL applies the same substance-abuse testing program to the owners that it applies to the players, the NFL can never claim with a straight face that owners are somehow held to a higher standard than players.