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Time for Roger Goodell and NFL to get real about players' marijuana use

Josh Gordon faces a potential season-long ban for failing another NFL drug test.    (USATSI)
Josh Gordon faces a potential season-long ban for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. (USATSI)

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Enough with the NFL's Reefer Madness already. It needs to stop.

I fully realize that nothing of significance changes in this league without a fight between the league and its union, but the fact that lighting up a joint is dealt with in a draconian fashion, while domestic abuse punishment is often meted out in a far-less severe manner, is just one of many incongruous corollaries to the NFL's weed policy.

At a time when the government's approach to pot is taking a dramatic turn, and the drug is being increasingly legalized to some degree or another in state after state, for young stars in their prime like the Browns' Josh Gordon and the Cardinals' Daryl Washington to both be potentially missing all of next season, if not longer, for using marijuana, is ludicrous (now, if you want to kick Washington out of the league for 2014 for other transgressions, you won't get an argument out of me).

This is getting ridiculous.

The penalties are far too severe, seeming to hearken back to a bygone time when stricter federal mandatory minimums for drug possession of any kind were all the rage. The times, they are a changin'-- no matter which side of this issue you are on, and on Friday alone the House passed an amendment restricting the DEA from targeting medical marijuana operations in states where it is legal; a bill that was backed by bipartisan support.

Truth is, over time more and more NFL players will be playing in states where it is not illegal to use pot, and, here's a newsflash, a large number of NFL players use it. Here's another newsflash -- so do a large number of pro athletes in other sports, and so do a large number of accountants, and plumbers and computer programmers, and, well, you get the picture.

Oh yeah, and I dare say an owner or two has dabbled with the wacky weed a time or two. And a coach or two. And a general manager or two. And I get the counterargument -- don't be stupid enough to get caught, players know when they are going to be tested by and large (that is unless or until they enter the drug program, when the testing becomes all-encompassing), so just don't get caught. But anyone who doesn't think that marijuana use is part of the NFL culture is kidding themselves.

It's a drug of choice to help relieve pain, escape the rigors of the game, and compared to the litany of painkillers that teams will gladly distribute via pill or injection, that will wreak havoc with one's liver and kidneys and god knows what else, it's seen by many, many players as a healthier alternative.

These are players asked to perform quasi-super-human feats every week, risking health and limb to do so. Are we really going to be hypocritical enough, at a time when the nationwide views on this drug are changing, to pretend they might not need a little somethin', somethin' to help them get through those six days before they go back on stage?

So, is it really better for the NFL to make an example out of Gordon or Brandon Browner or Trent Williams or Ricky Williams or any of the hundreds of players who have served lengthy suspensions because of the drug? Or should all parties come to the conclusion that staying the hell out of players' bongs, and just saying no to marijuana testing might just make more sense?

Should the competitive balance of games, and in some cases seasons, be swayed this dramatically because players are using a drug that states are looking more and more to tap into as a tax-revenue source? Should players be losing millions and millions of dollars for using a drug that is not a performance-enhancer, that they are using recreationally. Or would a don't ask/don't tell approach be the way to go? Players agree they keep it the hell away from any stadium or team facility and the league agrees to stay out of their pot stashes. If a player gets arrested for distribution or possession of large amount of pot, let his discipline come under the personal conduct policy, as would any arrest. Otherwise, extend outreach and counseling to players the league believes may be habitual users, but scrap this current policy that is unduly punitive in nature.

"It's getting ridiculous," said a long-time NFL personnel executive who told me he has been in private meetings in the past where his owner admitted using the drug occasionally. "In next five years it could be legal in the entire country, and the NFL is behind the times. This is like prohibition. Didn't they think any of the athletes were drinking back then? You don't think George Halas wasn't hitting the whiskey during prohibition? Get the hell out of here. "Marijuana, it kills the pain; it helps these guys calm their nerves down. It's probably more positive on the medical end than the negative. This is stupid. I can't take it anymore. It has to change, it's just a matter of time. The NFL needs to step up and say this is stupid. I know owners have smoked pot. (Colts owner Jim) Irsay hasn't been suspended yet for what he did, and that's worse than smoking pot. Let's just be honest and have an honest policy. The politics are changing. The policy needs to be overhauled."

Take a look at the NHL, for instance, a league that anyone must admit most closely approximates the NFL in terms of it being a violent, collision sport, where players routinely endure all types of extreme measures to be able to return to games. The league tests for marijuana, but it is not a part of the league's suspension protocol -- only performance-enhancing drugs are.

So the league and the union are aware of what players are putting in their bodies, but that data is compiled to then mutually extend help and treatment, without taking players off rosters and away from their teams. Seems plenty reasonable to me. The NBA will discipline players ... but not nearly in the manner in which NFL players are routinely suspended a quarter of the season, half of a season or, in many cases, an entire season, because of pot. The basketball league requires three failed tests before a player gets an initial five-game suspension. That's five of 82 games, which would equate to a .975 of a game suspension in the NFL (so essentially it would equal one missed NFL game, one missed paycheck).

And that's after what amounts to four failed tests, remember, in basketball. After that first suspension, NBA players will subsequently be suspended "five games longer than his immediately-preceding suspension for violating the Marijuana Program," according to their CBA with the league.

In the NFL the punishment is generally a quarter of the season, then half a season for a second offense, and then a year, though, of course, things are open to negotiation (as with Gordon missing four paychecks last year for his pot suspension, but missing just two actual games).

So, well, if things are this nebulous and free-flowing, why not eliminate it entirely? Or alter its scope greatly. I've been having discussions along these lines for years with players and agents and front office executives, and, in the past few years many more seem open to scrapping the current drug plan.

Commissioner Roger Goodell sent his trial balloon during the season, making comments that seem to at least broach the possibility of reviewing the policy based on changing pot laws across the nation, then, well -- whether influenced by owners or major corporate sponsors or whatever else -- Goodell pretty much quashed that notion during his "State of the League" address prior to the Super Bowl. That was unfortunate.

Since then we've seen more young stars suffer the consequences of this foolish policy, and teams and coaches forced to scramble to prepare for football without them. Veteran player agent Peter Schaffer, who happens to live in Colorado, a state at the epicenter of the legalization movement, has been telling me for years about how heartily he believes the marijuana policy needs to change, with pot a viable alternative for coping with the full-body aches and pains that come from putting one's body on the line every Sunday.

In recent years, with the NFL urging its team doctors to curb the use of Toradol, a once-common pain-killing injection frequently given to players after games, Schaffer anticipated more use of marijuana, and that's not likely to change, antiquated suspension policy or not, with the drug serving as "alternative post-competition pain management," as he puts it.

"Toradol is a high-grade anti-inflammatory; it's not a pain medicine," Schaffer said. "It's a shot you take and you feel better for 24 hours. And because they're worried -- and probably rightfully so -- about Toradol and long-term health affects, you don't want to be giving guys Toradol and 20 years later they have major issues. But the problem is you just can't bury your head in the sand and say, 'We got rid of Toradol,' and then give the players no alternative pain relief. You still need to have a post-game pain relief medication and an alternative. That's the reality. You have to have a suitable alternative for the players, because otherwise they will turn to what they did in the '50s and '60s which is alcohol, and we know that's not good for you with drinking and driving, and we know that alcohol is highly addictive.

"And marijuana is becoming increasingly socially accepted in many states and medially accepted. And who knows what we're going to find in 10 years or 20 years or whatever, but right now it does not seem to have the adverse medical problems that alternative pain medications have. In the past week we just had one of our best offensive players and one of our best defensive players suspended for a year for this, how does that make the game better? How does that make the game better to punish them for that, when in Colorado half the state is doing it?

"How does it make sense to have some of our best players not playing, not because they're getting arrested or doing anything to hurt anybody, but because they are using marijuana? I don't smoke marijuana at all, and I'm not condoning or advocating for it, but I'm saying if it's a suitable alternative pain medication we need to consider decriminalizing it within the league."

I'm not a pot user, either, though I have no issue with those who partake, and I'm not trying to parent anyone's children or impose my ideals on others. But for this group of adults who play this game for a living, the allure of marijuana will always be there, and it's folly to pretend things aren't changing outside the game as well.

If nothing else, the thresholds for a positive test should be raised substantially (and, if the NFL and NFLPA can ever agree on the final piece of HGH testing and a new global drug policy, the amounts required to trigger a "positive" test very likely would in fact go up. Right now football players are being held to a bizarre standard -- 15 nanograms per milliliter, which constituted a failed test.

"For air traffic controllers, it's three-times higher," Schaffer said. "For WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), the cutoff level is 175 -- that's for Olympic athletes -- which is over 10 times greater than what we deal with. People who are landing planes can be at 50 nanograms, but an NFL player hurting on Sunday night are at 15? For personal use in your home? I don't get it. I've tried to push the union to raise the threshold for a long time, and I've tried to push the league office to push the threshold higher. I've advocated for this for over a decade. "To me it's a win-win situation -- not suspending your best players for doing something everyone else is doing. If you're that worried about Josh Gordon, get him help. Don't penalize him. And if teams are worried that pot makes players less aggressive, then, hey, that player will eventually get cut if that's the case. But the way this policy is put together now doesn't make sense anyone."

Couldn't have said it better myself. Hopefully, it changes drastically. The sooner the better.

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