Is smoking pot more reprehensible than beating women?
That's something the NFL will have to decide soon, as league officials consider the future of superstar Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon (pictured), who faces a year-long suspension for failing a drug test earlier this year.
The day after the NFL Draft in May, it was announced that Gordon, the league's leader in receiving yards last season, could be suspended for an entire year after testing positive for marijuana. Since the 23-year old has a lengthy history of substance "abuse"—having been kicked off of Baylor's team in college for positive marijuana tests and serving a two-game suspension in 2013 for testing positive for the banned substance codeine—it was widely assumed the league would show no mercy, and that the dream team of Gordon and Browns hotshot rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel would have to wait another year.
However, that was before a public relations nightmare involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice occurred. In February, a video surfaced of Rice entering an elevator with his wife, and exiting moments later—dragging her out unconscious. Rice pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault, and avoided trial by being accepted into a pre-trial intervention program. On July 25, the NFL suspended him for a grand total of two games.
The slap on the wrist sparked outrage across the political spectrum—from congressmen, to sports talk show host and liberal pundit Keith Olberman, to Republican governor of Maine Paul LePage, who even threatened to boycott the league.
"The response to the Rice suspension was eye-opening," wrote ESPN NFL's Jane McManus of the rare unanimous consensus against the league.
Now, officials are attempting to draft a new policy that would crack down on players involved in domestic violence. The Washington Post reported that a new policy is being pushed that would increase the punishment to four- to six- game suspensions for first-time violators, with the possibility of a one-year ban for second-time offenders.
But in order to enact such a policy, the NFL Players Association has to be on board. And while the organization surely doesn't want to be seen as protecting wife abusers, it won't agree to stricter punishments unless there is quid pro quo by the league. That quid pro quo seems likely to come in the form of lessening the penalties for users of cannabis.
"The league is crafting a crafty way out of this mess where they can explain why they're bending the rules and lessening the punishment for Josh Gordon," said Browns beat reporter Tony Grossi on ESPN Cleveland radio. "They'll use it to promote this new advanced discipline policy, which also includes the domestic abuse policy that they're working on."
If this policy change happens, it could very likely generate millions of dollars for the NFL and its sponsors by giving fans what they want: the chance this season to see Gordon play with Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner and TMZ darling.
Yes, it's true that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't historically made decisions based on catering to superstars. In fact, his six-game suspension to Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for his alleged involvement in a sexual assault indicates the opposite, as Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime but still received a harsher penalty than Rice.
But in this case, giving Gordon a break is a win-win situation. Not only would it allow one of the top young stars to play; it also addresses the NFL's current hypocritical stance of punishing non-violent offenders worse than wife beaters—a policy that's quickly eating up the political capital generated a few months ago when the St. Louis Rams drafted the first openly gay player, Michael Sam.
An announcement on the fate of Gordon and the NFL discipline policy may come by the end of the week.