November 2, 2021
More Than An Athlete/Bigger Than Football
After a stint in the Fan Controlled Football league earlier this year, Josh Gordon successfully applied for reinstatement in the NFL as the 2021 season got underway and is now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. While he awaited a decision from Roger Goodell, fantasy team owners got excited again at the prospect of seeing him back on the field and watching him put up the big numbers we have grown accustomed to. Fans and talking heads alike also got to speculate on air and on social media about how long he would be able to stay on the field this time.
When he was suspended in December 2019, many declared Josh Gordon “stupid”, ungrateful”, “Ignorant”, “a disgrace” for “continuing to do dumb stuff”, for letting his team down, at a crucial time, for wasting his talent and this latest opportunity in a great organization like the Seattle Seahawks. Comments largely recycled from a year prior when, as a member of the New England Patriots, facing an indefinite suspension for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement under the NFL drug policy, Gordon stepped away from football.
This was the discourse then and it is the discourse now because Josh is to all of these people, first and foremost, a football player and not just any football player. A special one.
He was a phenomenal football player who took the league by storm when he came out of college and was drafted in the supplemental draft by the Cleveland Browns in 2012. The Browns were not a good team in the league, not for lack of trying and not for lack of opportunities to draft talented players each year, and Josh Gordon instantly became the talk of the town and the league. He was that special! Nicknamed Flash, watching him play you immediately understood why: he looked like a superhero who could literally dominate a game by himself.
This incredible talent he has shown at any level he has played at and especially in the NFL has undoubtedly been a blessing. It has also been a curse, however. When you are this good, you stop being a man in the mind of many. The holes and cracks underneath the superhero costume can be as deep and wide as craters, nobody will pay attention to them if you can play. And Flash can play.
In the midst of the heavy discourse over “dumb” and/or “ungrateful” Josh, two voices rose and rerouted the conversation to what I consider the most important piece of the equation: Josh, the man. The first was NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter, then a co-host of First Things First on FS1 with Nick Wright and Jenna Wolfe. Back in December 2018, when Josh Gordon, then with the Patriots, stepped away from the game, Cris Carter could relate. He spoke from experience, as an addict himself, in recovery for three decades and who almost lost his career due to this disease. He knows what Josh and others like him are fighting every day and how much risk they are each minute from losing this fight, even if it’s only temporarily. He also knows what it feels to fight this fight in the public eye, as he had to do during his career. Even though the scrutiny is at a whole different level of intensity with the increased appetite for information on all fronts, the boom of social media and 24-hour news cycles, and the increased level of access fans have to the athletes and entertainers they love. Nothing is private anymore. Leaks are daily occurrences. “Sources close to” the person/situation are everywhere ready to talk under the cover of anonymity. Being an addict in the public eye in 2021 means your battle is yours to fight but everybody else in the world is free and eager to discuss it and you, especially when/if they have a dog in the fight. The other voice, who sought to remind the sports world that Josh was more than an athlete and that this fight was for his life, was former NFL player and executive, and current ESPN analyst, Louis Riddick. On ESPN Get Up!, he reminded critics that what was happening to Josh could happen to anyone. It could. It happens to people around the world every single day. Addiction doesn’t discriminate and we need to talk about it.
When someone like Josh Gordon admits, as he did in a candid interview with GQ Magazine that he had “never played football without something in his system” and calls himself an “addict”, we have to listen. If we listened more and made space for people, and specifically athletes to open up about these types of struggles, during their career or in retirement, we could maybe avoid tragic deaths such as that of Tyler Skaggs, who played for the Los Angeles Angels at the time, and former Boston Bruins Jimmy Hayes. The toxicology reports in both cases revealed the presence of Fentanyl, a powerful opioid used as a pain medication, also often used as a recreational drug, alone or in conjunction with cocaine or heroin. According to the families of Skaggs and Hayes, both men started using pills to treat pain they had been dealing with as a result of injuries. For athletes and for others, that is how it often starts: an injury, a surgery, a trauma… And it’s prescribed by a doctor, obtained legally, so we don’t see the harm in it. Then, we become dependent on these pills and we need more, more often, something stronger… Without help, we drift further and further into the abyss of a monster whose name is still too difficult to speak aloud: addiction.
“Troubled” is the word that comes up the most in the media when discussing Josh Gordon, and it seems to have become his biggest descriptor ahead of the type of player he is and way ahead of the type of person he is underneath all of that. When you think of someone as troubled, introduce them as troubled and shape the narrative to reinforce that troubled image, it makes it almost impossible for you and others to even consider what lies beneath the trouble. Even if the word fits in a way, the label is heavy, the picture is incomplete and the pressure from both could be extremely difficult to deal with, in the public eye, when you are trying your best to fight and beat your well-documented demons every day, training hard to stay in shape and perform well, working hard to be who everyone wants you to be on the field, in the locker room and every area of your life, which does not necessarily add up to the same person and often does not add up to who you really are.
We hear it all the time: playing in the NFL is a privilege not a right. Although, there are a few other avenues to play football professionally (i.e. CFL, XFL), none compares or comes close to what the NFL is and has been since its inception. Until further notice, the wholly grail of professional football remains the NFL. So, yes, playing in it is a privilege that only a chosen few get to enjoy in their lifetime, whether it is for a game or for 10 years. The idea of privilege, though, in the way it is used when it comes to professional sports, in particular in the NBA and the NFL, is seen differently from executives, media and fans on one side and the players on the other side. The latter sees it as a privilege earned through hard work, sacrifice, dedication, blood, sweat and tears, while the former sees it more as a favor done to these players, something they should feel grateful for and should never jeopardize in any way. Although the two views are not mutually exclusive, they often clash.
Who deserves to play in the NFL and who doesn’t? What does that even mean when we are talking about situations that are much bigger than football? While some choose to focus on whether Josh deserves another chance at football, others, like me, choose to hope and pray that he continues to get chances at life and that through examples like his, the conversation around addiction and mental health gains real depth.
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