Josh Gordon an easy target for NFL that should do more

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Josh Gordon's reported year-long suspension for failing another drugs test is punishment for 'conduct detrimental to the league'. In actual fact, the only person hurt by this is Gordon himself.

The Cleveland Browns wide receiver is once again the bad guy for failing a drugs test, but as Super Bowl coverage of the Seahawks and Patriots heats up, Gordon is merely an easy target masking a much more pressing NFL concern.

No other sport seems as fascinated by hand-wringing over recreational drug use, and so blasé about the shady underworld of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), as the NFL. 

Josh Gordon

The troubled Browns star may have just ended his NFL career. Gordon, just 23, has struggled to stay clean, failing tests for marijuana and now alcohol.

He missed the first 10 games of the 2014 season, after missing two in 2013, and was suspended for the final game of the season this year for a 'violation of team rules.' He's no angel, but his misdemeanours are minor compared to some of the other scandals that have hit America's Game this year.

It's difficult to imagine the Browns, already struggling to keep Johnny Manziel and his fellow first round pick Justin Gilbert on the straight and narrow, will back Gordon again.

OK, so he's throwing his career away. He's clearly got terrible advisors, he may hang with a questionable crowd. People will give up on him now, and that's deserved. He has no one to blame but himself. He knew the rules, and his employer has every right to cut him loose.

But he is merely the most extreme case study in an NFL substance abuse policy that looks broken.

Gordon has effectively been banned for the best part of two seasons for testing positive for marijuana and alcohol - recreational drugs that require rehabilitation, not further ostracism.

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The moral outcry in this case is so easy. Gordon as immature and reckless is a simple narrative.

But this take sits at odds with the under-the-carpet nature of the discussion that surrounds another type of drug use.

The league remains behind the eight ball on tackling PEDs. The NFL, where players return from ACL tears in record time before posting historic seasons, where stars recover from serious injuries in weeks rather than months, has only just started testing for HGH - tests that have been described as 'impossible to fail.'

The world sees cycling and athletics as immoral sports full of dopers. But athletes are athletes. In business or sport, in anything competitive for that matter, there will be individuals who step over the line in pursuit of success.

Gordon was stupid enough to do the opposite. He should receive assistance to prevent an egregious waste of natural talent. Instead he's cast off. The drugs cheats? Better to keep that quiet, or at least minimise the fall-out.

PED use this season

Lance Johnson, Eagles offensive tackle, suspended just four games for PED use. LaRon Landry of the Colts got the same punishment. Same with Dion Jordan and Haloti Ngata.

In recent seasons, you're looking at Von Miller, Bruce Irvin, Aqib Talib, Joe Haden, Brandon Browner to name a few - three of these players will feature in this year's Super Bowl.

As with any crime, only a fraction of those guilty ever get caught.

These are players, some are franchise cornerstones, that have been banned for violating PED rules. Gordon was originally suspended the entire 2014 season for smoking marijuana.

Admittedly, Gordon is a repeat offender while Johnson and co are not. But despite a rebalancing of disciplinary outcomes, the NFL confuses the issue when the two drug policies sit side-by-side.

An NFL player can receive a two-to-six game ban for a first PED offence, a 10-game ban for a second and a two-year ban for a third. Recreational drug use brings counselling for a first offence and a combination of fines and suspensions for subsequent failures, up to a year suspension for a sixth offence.

The league has treated substance abuse and PEDs under the same umbrella of 'conduct detrimental to the league', when in actual fact they sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Substance abuse results in a superficial image problem for the NFL - it looks bad when 'role models' test positive for weed. But the integrity of the game is not damaged.

It's not breaking news, but the Seahawks led the league in PED suspensions (with five) between 2010 and 2013. They have made the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons and are defending champions.

Nobody wants to talk about PEDs because they're complicated. It's not simple like banning someone for smoking a joint. That's an individual decision, that person was stupid, they get banned.

With PEDs, when someone's found guilty, everybody looks stupid. The league, the teams, the players involved, the fans. All have been duped into believing their sport was a fair fight.

Which brings us to the NFL's testing protocol. Travis Tygart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, believes you'd 'have to be a fool to fail the HGH test.'

Without getting too technical, HGH stays in the system for 48 hours. But tests can only take place at a team facility - players know exactly when they'll be there and can plan accordingly. There's no test on game day, and during an off-season, players are given 24 hours to schedule a test.

No random spot-checks, 'no-notice testing', as the USADA describes it, is not used.

The World Anti-Doping Agency believes testing should increase 'out-of competition'.

But, per the new policy, players cannot receive suspensions for testing positive for banned stimulants in the off-season, instead they're put on a substance abuse program.

And NFL testing has even been criticised for being 'too random' - players that have tested positive in the past are not more likely to be tested again, selection is completely random via computer.

In other sports, 'intelligent testing' is used to keep an eye on previous offenders.

Other sports

In tennis, Roger Federer says you would have to be 'naive' to think athletes don't dope. The sport, as well as cycling and the Olympics, has introduced a biological passport to combat this, where athlete blood samples are measured against a benchmark to detect anomalies that may signal doping.

Why would football, with all the injuries, the gym work, the training, be different?

Players like Gordon need real help, not year-long suspensions. His mistakes harm his own career, nobody else in the league. PED cheats hurt themselves, but more importantly bring the integrity of the whole sport into question.

Yet, after a four-game suspension, they are ushered back into the team. Gordon is an idiot, Von Miller is a professional.

Nobody should feel sorry for Gordon, but these headline-inducing bans mask the far bigger problem the NFL has with testing for PEDs. 

It's fine to mock cycling, athletics and other sports riddled by years of historic drug use, but at least these sports are addressing the problem with innovative testing.

Because, after all, these cheats are the ones truly guilty of 'conduct detrimental to the league.' Not Josh Gordon.

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