Hi. I’m Bryce, and I’m an alcoholic. After years of struggling with an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, I’ve been drug- and alcohol-free since December 19th, 2015. Unfortunately, so many others are not as lucky as I have been.
Today, I woke up to a phone call from a friend, the type of phone call nobody ever wants to receive. He had called to let me know that a guy we used to live with had died. I was not particularly close with this individual, but I got to know him as part of my stay at a halfway house in Nashville, Tennessee. We’ll call him Mike.
Mike, like so many others embroiled in opioid addiction, had been trapped in a vicious cycle, one that he was ultimately unable to escape. He leaves behind friends and a loving family, one that had tried for so many years to help him break the cycle. They tried everything. He’d been to multiple treatments, but it never clicked for him. And now he’s gone.
Shortly after receiving that phone call, I saw that Josh Gordon’s appeal for reinstatement was denied by the commissioner. I feel for Gordon, just as I felt for Mike when he relapsed shortly after I met him.
Addicts and alcoholics are inextricably tethered to one another; we know how it feels to be upside down in a bewildering vortex of despair. What I know that so many others – like the general public and, apparently, Commissioner Goodell – don’t, is that it’s not so simple for Gordon to ‘just stop,’ as they say. I am not recusing Gordon or attempting to absolve him of responsibility. What I am saying is that it’s entirely possible that Gordon has less of an idea why he continues to do it than the perplexed fans who publicly lament his decisions for him.
But unlike Mike, Gordon’s family – the NFL brotherhood, as it’s called – has not proffered a hand. He’s been systematically stigmatized, intentionally or not, by the league office. Gordon has made more than his fair of poor choices, to be sure. Picking up drugs and alcohol comes with inherent risks, and there are often many warning signs before one becomes fully engulfed by the darkness that is addiction.
So perhaps it’s fitting that it parallels football in this regard. Players understand the risks, albeit perhaps not entirely, and participate anyway. Some end up with concussions and other injuries. Some have lifelong knee problems. Some develop CTE. Some, like Junior Seau, succumb to the brain disease and die.
The disease of addiction – and it is a disease – is progressive and deadly, just like CTE. So what makes no sense to me is that while the average NFL fan clamors for improved player safety, more stringent concussion protocols, and improved treatment of players, they have no compassion for the Justin Blackmons and the Josh Gordons of the world.
What’s worse is that neither does Roger Goodell. For a league that has been dogged for its handling of player health issues and inconsistent punitive system, the mishandling of the Josh Gordon case is yet another black mark against the NFL.
According to a report by Jeff Risdon, the commissioner “didn’t appreciate” Gordon seeking treatment at a rehab facility after he was conditionally reinstated. In other words, Goodell felt personally insulted that a troubled, young man took the initiative to get himself the help he so clearly and desperately needs. Rather than employing the NFL’s vast wealth of resources to secure Gordon help, Goodell turned his back on him.
This begs the question: if people like Mike fail with all the help in the world, what hope do people like Josh Gordon have?
This goes beyond the medical marijuana issue of the NFL, and even the federal legalization of the substance entirely. Legalizing marijuana won’t get Josh Gordon sober. Alcohol is completely legal and Justin Blackmon’s troubles with drinking ruined his once-promising career.
This goes beyond the stigma of public perception and legal yellow tape. This is about the fact that Roger Goodell is as willing to dole out punishment to struggling players as team doctors are to dispense pain meds. Between this, and its gross negligence in its handling of the concussion problem, the message is clear:
They don’t give a fuck about their players.
And let me tell you a story about pain meds. In my personal recovery journey, I met a former player – we’ll call him Joe – whose struggle began with team-prescribed opioids. He was a nice guy and was never much of a partier. He sustained some injuries early on and was prescribed pain medication in an effort to rush him back onto the field. He eventually became hooked on those pain meds and wound up in rehab.
After a successful stint in treatment, he went back and was met not with open arms, but was instead received as an outcast. His leadership was questioned. He was called a bad teammate. He lost his starting job. His career ended thusly.
Joe’s experience was in the college ranks, but a fish rots from the head down. As the grand poobah of all of football, Roger Goodell is setting a bad example not just for NFL teams, but for college teams and all who enjoy watching the sport. He’s sending a message that, if you do drugs, you’re a bad person. It’s not as cut-and-dry as that. This goes beyond football. This is about the health and lives of people that play the games, as well as the health and lives of those that don’t.
Some of the game’s biggest, brightest stars have burnt out due to this problem, and it’s not a new one. Stories like this conjure reminders of Aldon Smith and Johnny Manziel, but older fans may remember stories like those of Ryan Leaf and Todd Marinovich. The list goes on. And if nobody cares about the Aldon Smiths and the Johnny Manziels of the world, why should anybody give a fuck about people like my friend Mike?
The league’s policy is clear. If you are not readily available – whatever the reason may be – to help the league generate revenue, you do not matter. The NFL doesn’t care about the sick or the old, the injured or the destitute. This culture is part of why some have speculated that the league is slowly dying. And if they don’t make a concerted, sincere effort to change that, people like Josh Gordon will slowly die with it.