November 1, 2016, marked the 60-year anniversary of the National Football League’s Players Association.

The association has embarked on issues affecting NFL players from benefits to amending league policies. Although issues may be different than in the past and the continuous cycle of players entering and veterans retiring has brought a new dynamic to the league than before, one aspect of the association has stayed the same – the commitment to providing a “voice” for NFL players. This goal of providing a voice is further established on the association’s website.

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We, The National Football League Players Association … Pay homage to our predecessors for their courage, sacrifice, and vision; … Pledge to preserve and enhance the democratic involvement of our members; … Confirm our willingness to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of our membership — To preserve our gains and achieve those goals not yet attained.

Based on this statement, the union takes on grievances players have regardless of the issue and any feelings towards it that may arise as long as the grievance has “merit.”

“Filing a grievance is a legally guaranteed right of the player, so long as the grievance has merit. A player cannot be discriminated against for filing a claim.”

Without question, the NFLPA has provided a voice for players seeking to be heard. One of the most notable NFLPA’s accomplishments is the change to the league’s substance abuse policy. The NFLPA and the NFL came together in 2014 to establish the current policy.

In Article 39, Section 7 of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, . . . the NFL Management Council and the NFLPA . . . reaffirmed that ‘substance abuse [is] unacceptable within the NFL, and that it is the responsibility of the parties to deter and detect substance abuse . . . and to offer programs of intervention, rehabilitation, and support to players who have substance abuse problems’ . . . [t]he Commissioner maintains the ability to impose other discipline for conduct not covered by this Policy.

This Policy is not to be considered a grant of authority to discipline players but instead is an agreement to impose the stated discipline for violations of the requirements of the Intervention Stages.

According to the policy, the substances referred to include “but [are] not limited to cocaine, marijuana, opiates and opiodis, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), phencyclidine (PCP); [t]he abuse of prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and alcohol is also prohibited.”

Even though the league’s substance abuse policy is specifically outlined, violations still happen.

Overview of Player Violations

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On November 1, 2016, Pro Bowl left tackle, Trent Williams, was suspended four games for violating the substance abuse policy. According to The Washington Post, this is Williams’ second time violating the league’s policy during his seven years as a Washington Redskins player.

Two days prior, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was released from rehab. Gordon was indefinitely suspended by the NFL and has not been re-instated despite his 30-day stay in the rehab facility. Gordon entered the facility when he was just one week away from returning after a four-game suspension due to alcohol-related issues. Gordon’s substance abuse issues started in 2013 (former NFL substance-abuse policy was in affect).

Despite the NFLPA success in developing and implementing the current substance abuse policy, can the argument be made that it is too lenient? Can the argument be made that the focus of the policy is more on suspension and fines rather than providing the help that repeated violators need? Furthermore, can the argument be made that the moment after a player announces their admittance into rehabilitation, they are no longer seen has having value to their current team?

Granted, Josh Gordon has gone through substance abuse issues for years, but should the fact that he voluntarily went to rehab mean something? He was once the leader in receiving yards (2013, 1646 yards) and at only 25-years-old, Gordon may have more to give to the league provided he remains sober and is in game-ready shape.

Josh Gordon is an extreme case, but repeated violators of the substance-abuse policy should be able to receive treatment without prejudice. Repeated violators should be able to receive treatment and not have to worry about never being able to play in the league again, especially when they can still contribute and remain clean and sober.

Regardless, players like Gordon, who are put on the indefinitely suspended list, have to plead their re-entrance into the league to Commissioner Goodell through a formal process.

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  • Adam Schefter, Browns WR Josh Gordon released from rehab facility, (Oct. 30, 2016).
  • Jared Dubin, Suspended Josh Gordon reportedly released from rehab facility, CBS Sports (Oct. 30, 2016).
  • Liz Clarke & Mike Jones, Redskins tackle Trent Williams is suspended four games for missing a drug test, The Washington Post (Nov. 1, 2016).
  • Mary Kay Cabot, Josh Gordon released from rehab and Browns will likely try to trade him by Tuesday, source says, (Oct. 30, 2016, 9:15 AM)
  • Browns receiver Josh Gordon released from rehab facility, remains suspended, (Oct. 30, 2016).
  • Drug Program Resources, NFLPA (last visited Nov. 7, 2016).
  • NFL Players Association Celebrates 60th Anniversary, NFLPA (last visited Nov. 6, 2016).
  • 2013 NFL Receiving, Pro Football Reference (last visited Nov. 6, 2016).
  • 2015 National Football League Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse, NFLPA/NFL.