Did Josh Gordon Deserve His Punishment?

Let’s set aside that I drafted Gordon with fifth-, sixth- and eighth-round picks in three leagues and also paid $13 for him in our Steak League Auction. This isn’t about me being bitter – though be assured I am bitter. This is about Gordon’s punishment and whether it was deserved.

One common view I’ve encountered, expressed by USA Today’s Chris Chase, is while the punishment is “capricious”, “arbitrary,” “misguided” and “out of touch,” and Gordon’s example might be the “catalyst for necessary change,” Gordon deserves to serve the full year because he knew the rules, the players collectively agreed to those rules and he broke them.

This argument sounds sensible on its face, but it’s not. In fact, it’s two different arguments, and they have little to do with one another. On the one hand,  everyone knows the NFL is in the dark ages when it comes to marijuana. The rules serve no important purpose (is there any evidence NFL players smoking marijuana in private causes harm to anyone?), while they badly harm the player who breaks them and, to a lesser extent, his team. They also don’t reflect the changing legal and cultural climate where marijuana is legal medicinally in 21 states and recreationally in two. As Chase points out change isn’t merely desirable, but “necessary.”

The other argument is, okay sure, but if you were Josh Gordon, it would have been wise to steer clear of both first- and second-hand marijuana smoke to every extent possible, knowing what would likely await from an out-of-touch and misguided disciplinary system.

Those are two completely unrelated arguments. Under the first, the rules are misguided and the punishment arbitrary. What does it mean for rules to be misguided and arbitrary if not that people should not be subject to them*? If people should not be subject to them, then Gordon should not have been subject to them. If he should not be subject to them, then he does not deserve his arbitrary punishment. That’s what those words mean.

It cannot be the case that misguided and arbitrary rules are converted into being fair because someone knowingly didn’t abide by them. That would mean that the rules are arbitrary and misguided but only if no one knowingly breaks them. As soon as someone knowingly breaks them, that person deserves their full weight because by breaking them, he somehow cured them of their misguidedness.

This makes no sense. It’s really a non-sequitur. We can all agree Gordon was unwise, reckless and/or unlucky to have trace amounts of marijuana in his system. We can all agree if he intended to play in the NFL this year, he’d have been better off following the misguided rules**. But that’s as far as we can go. If the rule is arbitrary and misguided, he cannot be said to deserve its consequences.

* What’s the alternative? Rules are rules, so follow them no matter what? There have been some pretty dark chapters in human history when people took things in that direction.

** Let’s leave aside the possibility that he did follow the rules to a great extent given he passed 70 drug tests and had only trace amounts of marijuana in his system, low enough to make second-hand smoke plausible and far lower than the testing thresholds MLB or the Olympics used.

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