Josh Gordon’s suspension needs to prompt NFL, players to finalize drug policy

In the three-plus years since the new NFL collective bargaining agreement brought with it the hope of HGH testing and a new drug policy, there’s been plenty of private and public posturing between the players and the league. The only thing that’s been missing has been the pressure of a high-profile case to highlight the need to finalize the policy.

Enter Josh Gordon.

On Wednesday, the Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver was officially suspended for the 2014 season after arbitrator Harold Henderson upheld the league’s decision on appeal. Gordon’s absence marks the first time since 1966 a player who led the NFL in rushing or receiving missed the following season.

And the worst part is it doesn’t have to be that way.

Currently, the NFL’s threshold of THC levels to trigger a positive marijuana test is 15 nanograms per milliliter, which mirrored the World Anti-Doping Agency’s level until last summer when WADA raised its threshold to 150 ng/ml. Sources have confirmed to FOX Sports what reported recently — that Gordon’s "A" sample came in at roughly 16 ng/ml, or just 1 nanogram above the limit.

Sources say the NFL Players Association would like to have the NFL’s THC threshold raised. The league office surely noted WADA’s changing its level, realizes Major League Baseball’s threshold is 50 ng/ml and understands many of the stigmas surrounding marijuana have lessened in recent years. A league source said the NFL is willing to discuss raising the levels, but an agreement on that issue hasn’t been reached. The source also said it wasn’t until very recently that the NFLPA formally proposed raising the levels.

Perhaps Gordon’s case helped push that negotiating point to the forefront.

Had the NFL and NFL Players Association worked through the sticking points on the drug policy and come to a new agreement on marijuana testing as part of it, Gordon wouldn’t have even come close to a positive test. His presence on the field following his 1,646-yard season a year ago would’ve given the Browns some hope this year won’t just be a Brian Hoyer-led disaster.

But that’s just what it’s shaping up to be in Cleveland, in part because the players and the league are stuck on a major issue in the drug policy, and that’s commissioner Roger Goodell’s power to hear appeals in cases where there’s a violation without positive test (e.g. Rodney Harrison’s four-game ban in 2007 after he admitted he received HGH). If they can work through that point, the belief is everything else could easily be negotiated. And that means likely higher thresholds for marijuana testing.

The sides have pretty much worked out the details on HGH-testing procedures, third-party arbitration on positive tests and a population study to determine normal levels of the hormone in the average NFL player’s body.

The NFL gave in to the demands for the population study, has been willing to give players true neutral arbitration on all positive drug tests and has made other adjustments in the union’s favor, such as considering a positive test for Adderall to be a substance-abuse violation. The new classification would refer players to the drug program instead of a performance-enhancing issue that currently results in a four-game suspension. The NFLPA, meanwhile, has shown flexibility on increased penalties for first-time DUI offenses, though not enough for the league, apparently. In Goodell’s letter to owners to introduce the new policy on domestic-violence, he stated the union has resisted the league’s push for a two-game suspension for first-time offense.

The concessions on both sides haven’t been enough to agree in totality on the new policy. And because of the hangup, Gordon is being punished. A cynic might say the league’s unwillingness to bend in his case, even in light of the comparisons made to the two-game suspension Ravens running back Ray Rice received for striking his wife, was designed to put pressure on the players to give up the fight over Goodell’s appeal power.

Maybe the solution is as simple as the players’ allowing Goodell to keep his power in legal and evidentiary cases (they’ve been a rare occurrence in recent years) while the league raises the threshold for THC without a fight.

Spokesmen for both the league and union declined requests for comment on this story.

This is not to absolve Gordon of any blame. He knew he was in Stage 3 of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, where another failed test (his fourth since entering the league) would mean a one-year suspension. So whether he was smoking marijuana or — as he claims — near others who were smoking, Gordon should have been more responsible in his actions.

But in recent years, the NFL has sidelined key players who otherwise would have been active under a new policy. Goodell said at the league’s spring meetings 21 of the 104 players who have been suspended for drug-related offenses since 2011 would have been referred to the substance-abuse program instead of being suspended. (He didn’t specify the offenses but was presumably talking about at least a few Adderall cases. Unlike marijuana testing, both sides agree the issues surrounding Adderall and a few other performance-enhancing drugs have been worked out and agreed to.) Goodell also said two players would have received two-game suspensions instead of four-game bans.

Still, there needed to be a bigger case to spark action, and maybe Gordon’s will serve that purpose. He’s a top receiver in a league that continues to emphasize passing and offense because that’s what the owners want. So maybe it’s time for them to start putting more pressure on all involved to complete the drug policy.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is new to the club and his company’s recent legal issues didn’t exactly help his standing with his fellow owners. Had one of the more influential owners lost a top receiver, perhaps there would be more rattling of the cages on this one.

There’s no quantifiable number on what, if any, lost revenue Gordon’s suspension will cost the league. Dollars are the way to get owners’ attention. However, it’s clear they know star power and big numbers on offense have made their league popular. Unfortunately for them, a big piece of both of those elements likely won’t be putting on a Browns uniform this season and could be battling them in a court of law instead.

It’s a shame because Gordon is a tremendous talent who must now struggle to keep his personal life in order long enough to get reinstated by the league next year. And it’s a shame because this could have all easily been avoided. Trust between the players and the league has been compromised because of the CBA negotiations and Goodell’s heavy hand in the Bountygate situation. It’s affecting the drug-policy talks and it’s affecting the product on the field.

For the sake of all involved, and for the sake of the next player to barely crack the current marijuana-test threshold, these sides need to find some common ground and finally resolve their issues.