Why Are We Testing Athletes for Illicit Drugs?

Can't we just decide how they're doing based on their performances?

Posted May 12, 2014

Josh Gordon may be suspended for the entire football season for violating the National Football League's substance policy. Gordon is the Cleveland Browns' star receiver -- he led the National Football League in total yardage on pass receptions in 2013. Gordon totaled 1,646 receiving yards last season. On top of that, he was the first player in NFL history to receive passes on which he gained 200 or more yards in two straight games.

That's hard to do. The NFL recruits (and pays extravagant salaries to) many of the best athletes in the world. Receivers -- and the men who guard them, defensive backs -- are at the top of that list because, well, 1,600 yards is a lot of territory to cover during the season. When you burn one team for 200 yards, the next week's team is gunning for you. Their employment depends on someone's not running all over them after having done the same to a previous team the week before. (In case you don't watch professional football, large, muscular men are allowed to run at you as fast as they can and hit you with their whole bodies.)

Reports are that Gordon smokes marijuana, which violates the league's policies. Gordon has been reported to have "failed" a drug test. Gordon was suspended twice from the Baylor football team on account of marijuana when he was in college. He then transferred to Utah, but didn't play there because he failed a drug test. Last year, Gordon was suspended for two games for testing positive -- although for what substance is unclear. This time, since he is a repeat offender, Gordon would be suspended for the entire season.

Why is Gordon being suspended? Strictly speaking, it is for violating the league's policies on drugs. But marijuana is not a performance enhancing substance. So the underlying reasons are either legal (the NFL doesn't want players using "bad" substances) or psychiatric/health (the league feels that marijuana hurts people's mental and physical health). In other words, they're doing it for the player's own good.

The American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual, DSM, has two main ingredients in its definition of a substance use disorder -- impairment and distress. Although it is not recognized as such, DSM-5 ("5" for fifth edition) is a harm reduction document. That is, it does not regard substance use in itself as pathological. Such use must depreciate the individual's life (impair them) and disturb their mental balance (cause them distress) to be classified as a disorder.

It seems hard to calculate that a professional athlete who stars among the best athletes in the world is impaired. And it doesn't seem that Gordon experiences distress from his marijuana use. He appears well-balanced and content in interviews, like one for ESPN in which he discusses his anticipation that Cleveland would draft quarterback Johnny Manziel, which the Browns did. Gordon feels that Manziel's presence on the Browns will boost his performance.

In other words, Gordon's head seems to be in the game, he isn't resting on his past-year laurels, and he's looking forward to another outstanding, starring season. So why would the Browns suspend him? For his own good? Really, taking a full season away from an athlete during his limited prime is a helpful course of action? It's ironic that a likely result of a positive test is that Gordon would enter treatment. Treatment for what?

And isn't it doubly ironic that ESPN advertises hard cider prior to its clip on Gordon? I'm not against alcohol. In fact, it's a model for handling marijuana and other drugs.  People -- including athletes -- may drink, but they understand that they must show up on time and ready and able to perform.  Isn't it up to the individual athlete to use a substance in a way that's not detrimental to himself and his performance?

Gordon's suspension might cause the NFL -- cause us all -- to examine the assumptions underlying its drug policies.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. His writings are available at www.peele.net. You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.

P.S.  Anonymous wrote the league must "protect their reputations, like not allowing racists that have become known to the general public to own teams.

They don't want to get branded as hurting young men [by permitting] behavior that could be harmful to them. Then they would be seen as even more indifferent to their players' well being."

I answered:

So they should suspend him for a year without pay to show how they are helping him! Sort of like sitting your kid in a corner for bad behavior, only Gordon's older and he's a successful professional.

Speaking of racism (as you did), you don't think there's any hint of that in a white hierarchy taking a black man's livelihood away from him for violating their rules? You know, don't you, that nationwide, 85% of those arrested for marijuana possession are minorities?

By the way, also apropos your quote about their need to prevent "behavior that could be harmful to them," I agree wholeheartedly that NFL players and other athletes shouldn't be allowed to drink at all!

P.P.S. (June 29, 2014): Here's a comment by someone who thinks he's refuting me, and who makes all of my points, but is so incapable of reading and thinking he doesn't know it.  Look at his/her title, and weep.

Performance and safety sink

Submitted by Drug Free Workplace on June 29, 2014

Performance and safety sink fast when employees abuse alcohol or drugs. Others may feel they have to take up the slack when their coworkers attempt to work under the influence—falling short of expectations and increasing the risk of accident or injury.

Sorry you have to change your name

Submitted by Stanton Peele on June 29, 2014

Everything you say is wrong/makes no sense.

If athletes' (or employees') performance drops so radically, then the obvious conclusion is to test/track people's performance, and to reward/punish them on that basis, which will surely catch all the drug abusers, without having to enter their bodies for what used to be considered unreasonable searches, but which, due to people like you, we now accept.

Did you (can you) read the post in question? The guy being punished was the leading receiver in football, and he used drugs.

Nothing you say or think makes sense of this post or reality. Are you on drugs, or is this your natural state of being?

P.S. Are you in recovery? That could account for your -------.