Drug testing is a measure that sports leagues take, ostensibly, to level the playing field. This is a right-headed aim — though if you listen long and closely enough to someone whose pet cause is expunging PEDs from sports because How dare these cheats sully the integrity of the game!, you might find you don’t care about the issue as much as you had initially thought. But sure, most of us agree we need drug testing in sports to at least discourage athletes from cheating, because we want our games to be fair and reasonably meritocratic.
One side effect of this policy, though, is that while leagues have an athlete’s pee in a jar, they also test for recreational drugs, which don’t have anything to do with on-field performance. (Or if they do, they don’t particularly help.) Josh Gordon might miss the entire upcoming season because he likes to get high and isn’t prudent enough to take something that will mask his pot use so it doesn’t show up in tests. Gordon is foolish for this, but what is he doing wrong, really?
Getting marijuana off the banned substance list is an idea the NFL has been kicking around for a while, and it seems players might soon be able to use it for “pain relief” — which isn’t an invalid use, but also, if a guy just wanted to burn one on a Friday night, he could do that under the auspices of self-medicating. The NFL, much like the general public, is moving toward treating weed like what it is: a soft drug lots of people (and 50 to 60 percent of the league’s players) use on a regular basis, in a way that doesn’t harm or bother anyone else.
Whether the NFL stops testing for marijuana or not, it’s a problem that players have to get permission from Roger Goodell at all. Drug tests are becoming increasingly common for workers in a wide variety of fields, and what’s irksome about them is the implied message that you belong to your employer whether you’re on the clock or not. You are always, in some small way, at work, and that can dissuade you from certain choices you might want to make in the privacy of your home. You’re also being treated like a prospective miscreant, which is more than a little insulting.
Employers, of course, need to protect themselves against disrepute. It’s understandable that they don’t want to associate with racists or drunk drivers or domestic abusers. (Well, sometimes that last group gets a pass.) It’s a bad look, and it makes for a fraught workplace. It’s not unfair for a company to fire or suspend someone for a criminal offense or for espousing abhorrent personal beliefs. But these are not the same things as, say, having an after-dinner spliff.
I mention this because, in light of Jim Irsay’s transgressions, an argument is being made — most recently in a Peter King column, by King, a former player and NFLPA head Eric Winston — that the NFL should drug-test its owners in the same fashion that it tests its players. The logic goes like this: If the league is going to police what its athletes do in their spare time, owners should be held to the same rigid standard. As with a lot of eye for an eye justice, this is misguided, because it is only just on its face. If you have, for instance, a government that’s surveilling half its population, spying on the other half of the population doesn’t solve the problem. One should work to right the wrong, not to wrong everyone equally.
Irsay needs to be disciplined by the league because he crossed a line. His battle with addiction is something he and the people around him need to deal with — and if the NFL wants to provide him with some helpful resources, even better. But what Goodell must concern himself with is the fact that Irsay got in a car while drunk and on painkillers and could have hurt or killed someone. He made himself a danger to society, and for that, he deserves to be punished.
It’s important to narrowly classify Irsay’s crime, because to do otherwise is to argue that Goodell should have some say as to what Irsay does when he’s by himself or with friends. I understand why players and those who litigate for them would want a universal standard for everyone involved in the league, but they should examine closely what they think that standard should be. A rule that applies to all isn’t necessarily a good one. Sometimes the rule itself is bogus and needs to be thrown out entirely.