Substance Abuse in the NFL

By Mark Canfield

On March 14th the NFL suspended Steelers’ wide receiver Martavis Bryant for an entire year due a violation in the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Bryant will miss every game for the Steelers this season and will not be able to collect a penny of his six hundred thousand dollar salary during his suspension.  At the start of last season, Bryant was suspended four games as a direct result for a violation in the NFL’s substance abuse policy similarly to this season. Bryant’s story is extremely sad when examining the circumstances, it is always hard to watch any member of our society, athlete or not, struggle with substance abuse and addiction. Pittsburg Steelers GM commented on the situation saying Bryant “is at a crossroads of his professional life, and he needs to understand significant changes need to occur in his personal life if he wants to regain his career as a Pittsburgh Steeler”.

Bryant’s predicament may sound very familiar to avid fans of football. Last season, the Cleveland Browns’ receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for one year similarly to Bryant. Similarly to Bryant, Gordon’s suspension was a result of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Josh Gordon’s suspension was directly related to his problems with alcohol. His issues reached a breaking point when he received a DWI. Gordon is not the only other athlete in the NFL who has issues with alcohol. Forty-Niners defensive end Aldon Smith received a DUI and with it came a short suspension. Later, when another incident involving alcohol occurred Smith was suspended for the entirety of the season. The incident derailed Aldon Smith’s young career, a career which was filled with potential. Eventually Smith was forced to leave the Forty-Niners and became member of the Oakland Raiders until his substance abuse issues resulted in him having to leave Oakland as well.

Alcoholism and drug abuse is a serious issue which pervades throughout the United States and is not a problem just professional athletes. However, it appears to be a fair question to wonder: “Is the NFL properly handling players with drug addiction problems?”.  The answer to that question simply put is “No”. It appears the NFL’s substance abuse policy is not yielding any positive results, the NFL needs to take steps to reach out to its athletes and ensure those athletes get the help they truly need instead of taking away the thing they love most, football, and suspending them for long portions of the season.

Johnny Manziel is the perfect illustration for how NFL is failing to help its athletes who have substance abuse issues. Johnny Manziel played college football for the Texas A&M Aggies and had a very successful college career while. As a freshmen Johnny Manziel won the Heisman trophy, becoming the first freshmen to ever win the award. While in College Station, Manziel became known as more than just a football player, he gained the reputation of a party boy. In fact, at one point, Johnny was kicked out of a bar making headlines across the country. Despite this, the partying and good times continued to roll giving NFL scouts plenty of reason to believe he had character issues. Once drafted by the Brown’s, Johnny continued his party boy antics. Johnny’s partying theatrics culminated into one of the greatest stories in sports. Manziel went to Las Vegas wearing a fake wig, glasses and mustache, all the time calling himself “Billy” so no one would know it was him, Johnny also instagramed a photo of him with his dog at his Cleveland home leading people to believe he was not in Las Vegas. Even being caught in this elaborate lie to go party Manziel did not realize his issues were becoming problematic. At this juncture in the story, the saga of Johnny football becomes less entertaining and more sad. Johnny’s father said “I truly believe if they can’t get him help, he won’t live to see his 24th birthday”. Twice now Johnny has refused to enter rehab and get treatment for his substance abuse problems. Johnny Manziel clearly has serious issues he needs help with but the NFL has not stepped in. Even after Johnny became involved in a domestic dispute with his girlfriend resulting in a visit with the police the NFL has yet to step in. The NFL has made no meaningful effort to help Johnny Manziel. The situation is even worse for Bryant, Gordon and Smith who have not only have not received any meaningful help but have also received lengthy suspensions from the League.

While drug abuse is an important issue the suspensions which have been issued do not fit the crime. For instance, domestic violence is the current social problem consuming the NFL. Ray Rice was initially suspended for two games after hitting his fiancé Janay Rice. After the video of the conflict was released the suspension escalated to a year long and eventually morphed into an indefinite suspension.

Once the Ray Rice incident was past the NFL thought it should apply more discipline to athletes who are involved in domestic violence disputes. When Greg Hardy became involved in a particularly violent domestic dispute the NFL only suspended Hardy for 10 games; the suspension was later reduced to four. Ray Rice is still out of the league and Gregg Hardy was a member of the Dallas Cowboys in the previous season.

The NFL punishes offenders of the worst crimes in a less harsh way than they punish people who have real issues and need help. How can the NFL punish those with personal issues who need for people to reach out to them and offer support but give much less severe punishments to those are involved in hitting women. Martavis Bryant is just the most recent iteration of a story that has been occurring for as long as the NFL has existed. Currently in the United States 17.6 million people are addicted to alcohol. Alcoholism is a disease and it is about time professional football starts treating it as such because the way it is handling the issue of substance abuse now opposed to other issues is appalling. The NFL needs to make a real effort to get help to athletes dealing with substance abuse issues.


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