Sometimes it's just best to get on the damn plane.
On Wednesday afternoon, about two hours before the Pittsburgh Steelers' team plane was scheduled to fly to Philadelphia for the team's third preseason game against the Eagles, a police officer on a motorcycle allegedly caught a whiff of a distinctive odor while at a stop light in Ross Township outside of Pittsburgh. After identifying the sources of the pungent aroma, the officer pulled over a black Chevy Camaro being driven by Steelers' starting running back Le'Veon Bell. LeGarrette Blount, the Steelers' second-string back and free-agent acquisition this offseason, was also in the car, along with a third female passenger. And as you've likely heard by now, the officer reportedly found at least one thing of interest in the vehicle registered to Bell: a 20-gram bag of marijuana. Uh-oh.
I won't debate the merits of whether marijuana should be legalized. While what Bell and Blount were doing in Bell's car may have been permissible in Washington or Colorado, the fact remains that Pennsylvania has not legalized the substance. Fortunately for the players – both of whom, along with their female companion, reportedly claimed collective ownership of the baggie – possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is considered to be for personal use, rather than distribution, and is classified as a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania. Accordingly, both Bell and Blount were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, and Bell, who was driving at the time, was also charged with driving under the influence of marijuana after having blood drawn at a nearby hospital following the stop.
In situations of arrest, the league generally waits for the legal process to run its course before handing down punishment. Under the terms of the Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse, as agreed to by the league and the Players' Association in 2010, players convicted of or admitting to a violation of law relating to the use, possession, acquisition, sale, or distribution of substances of abuse other than alcohol are subject to appropriate discipline as determined by the Commissioner. These substances of abuse, which differ from performance-enhancing drugs,* include marijuana. Per the Policy, "[a] player will normally be subject to discipline up to and including suspension without pay for four regular and/or post-season games for a first violation of the law related to substances of abuse other than alcohol and for six regular and/or post-season games for a second violation of the law related to substances of abuse other than alcohol."
*The NFL and players collectively bargained for separate policies covering substance abuse and performance-enhancing drugs. Though the general goal of each is to prohibit the use of certain drugs and substances, the two policies differ in enforcement. Under the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, a positive test results in an immediate four-game ban.
If it wasn't already clear, it's important to note that under the language of the Policy, a conviction or admission of a violation of the law is a requirement for the league to suspend the Steelers' backfield mates. Although both Bell and Blount have already been formally charged, they will still receive summonses in the mail that will include the date on which they must appear in court. Those dates have not yet been determined, said Ross Township detectives, so it remains in the air when either player could face discipline from the courts, and subsequently, the league.
That does not, however, forgo the possibility that either or both Bell and Blount could be suspended by the Steelers' organization. Technically, any discipline imposed by the team infringes on the league's exclusive jurisdiction under the substance-abuse policy. But under Article 42, Section 1 of the all-encompassing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the league and its players, clubs may discipline players for conduct deemed detrimental to the team. As such and notwithstanding Commissioner Goodell's likely forthcoming punishment, the Steelers - who have a history of enforcing discipline with their players** - could also levy a suspension on Bell or Blount before the courts reach their conclusion about the players' guilt.
**In 2008, Pittsburgh's top wide receiver Santonio Holmes faced marijuana possession charges. Though the league never suspended Holmes for the incident (this was before the current substance-abuse Policy was put into place in 2010), the organization discliplined him in-house by sitting him for the following game. It must be noted, however, that Holmes had a longer legal history leading up to that arrest, and because of the timing of the incident, it was seen as a distraction. This is not the case with Bell and Blount, both of whom are first-time offenders – notwithstanding Blount's infamous sucker-punch of a Boise State football player five years ago.
Thankfully for fantasy owners, the Steelers will allow the NFL to handle any disciplinary measures against Bell and Blount, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Whenever punishment is handed down - which could take months and potentially may not happen until next year given the glacial speed of today's court system - the NFL has tended to be somewhat lenient in meting out suspensions for marijuana use.*** Just last month, the NFL suspended Buffalo Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham for one game for violation of the substance-abuse Policy after Bradham, who was charged with marijuana possession following a traffic stop last August, completed a six-month probationary period to have the charges against him dismissed.
***This is an extremely different situation that the one Cleveland Browns wide out Josh Gordon faces, as Gordon, who is appealing a 16-game suspension, was in Stage Three of the league's substance abuse program. To even reach Stage Three, Gordon must have repeatedly failed tests or failed to comply with the league's "stages of intervention" - in which players are tested, evaluated, treated, and monitored for substance abuse. Further, unlike the punishment for committing a violation of a law relating to the use or distribution of an illegal substance, if a player fails an NFL-mandated drug test while in certain stages of the league's substance-abuse Policy, there is no Commissioner discretion in handing out punishment. The 16-game suspension Gordon faces for a violation of the Policy while in Stage Three is laid out specifically by the Policy agreed to by the league and players' union.
Although Bell, who recorded more than 1,200 total yards and scored eight touchdowns in 13 games in his rookie year last season, may have some additional difficulties as he was charged with both DUI and possession, it would be a surprise if he faced more than a two-game suspension at some point later this year or early next season. The same goes for Blount, who was only charged with possession and is likely looking at a single game benching at some point. As such, there's little reason for fantasy owners to rush out to grab the likes of Dri Archer, Tauren Polle or Jordan Hill, the next three backs on the Steelers' depth chart - none of whom have taken an NFL snap. Assuming Bell and Blount stave off suspensions for at least in the short term, Pittsburgh can move forward with its stated plans of using Bell and Blount as a one-two punch, which would be welcomed news for a team that tied for 27th in the NFL with only 1,383 rushing yards in 2013.