By Peter Pattakos

Folks in Cleveland and everywhere are fairly up in arms over the disparity between the NFL’s recent 2-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for having (allegedly) violently battered his wife, and the whopping 16-game suspension that star Browns receiver Josh Gordon is expected to receive pursuant to league policy for having tested positive for marijuana use.

The NFL’s lack of regard for the humanity of females has been pretty well pointed out in this story, and the “hit women, not joints” jokes have been made. But underappreciated in all this is the extent to which the nation’s prison state mirrors that of its National Football League when it comes to a “war on drugs.” Not that it’s much of a surprise to see a multi-billion-dollar corporation violate the public interest by manipulating a set of bad laws, but the NFL’s marijuana policy offers an especially clear example.

[blocktext align=”right”]Pot is less dangerous than booze, and now just as legal in two states and counting.[/blocktext]Plenty of this is absurd enough on its face. Gordon was able to lead the NFL in receiving in just 14 games last season, breaking three league records and three more franchise records despite his “drug problem,” and despite the Browns’ typical rotating carousel of career-backup/washout quarterbacks. It might be enough to make anyone want to start smoking weed. Though, of course, pot is as much of a “performance enhancer” as booze is. It’s also less dangerous, and now just as legal in two states and counting. If the NFL is protecting anyone by suspending Gordon, it’s certainly not Gordon himself.

The league’s big money sponsors, though, might be a different story. The alcohol industry aggressively lobbies against marijuana legalization, for obvious reasons, and beer companies are also the NFL’s biggest advertisers, spending hundreds of millions annually for TV spots alone. In this way, it’s just good business for the league to criminalize pot smoking.

[blocktext align=”left”]Pot is a way for NFL bosses to keep the thumb on their working class.[/blocktext]But more significantly, it’s also a way for NFL bosses to keep the thumb on their working class. Here it should be remembered that the league’s Commissioner, now Roger Goodell, works for the owners, not the players. Drug policy is always a significant bargaining chip in league labor negotiations, and the NFL has always had a much weaker players union than the NBA or MLB. You’ve never heard of a pro baseball or basketball player suspended for smoking weed (imagine!), but then, unlike their NFL brethren, those guys all have guaranteed contracts. If the league’s begrudging decades-late acknowledgment of concussions as a legitimate medical issue wasn’t enough, its draconian policy toward the use of recreational drugs only further reinforces the disposability of men who play football for a living. And it’s an especially harsh application to Gordon, who, if and when he’s allowed to play again will make less than $1.5 million annually on a rookie contract that doesn’t expire until 2016—at most one-tenth of what his talent would command on the open market.

[blocktext align=”right”]The NFL takes cover from a national culture that’s already insanely comfortable with the disposability of young men, and especially young black men.[/blocktext]Of course the NFL, as a private business, is theoretically free to maintain whatever drug policy it wants, but past a certain point it can only get away with what cultural norms permit. For example, many corporations might like to ban their employees from drinking alcohol when they get off work. But none of them do. Here, though, the league takes cover from a national culture that’s already insanely comfortable with the disposability of young men, and especially young black men (about 65 percent of NFL players are black), on bases as flimsy as those for the criminalization of weed. Quite apart from economic policies that perpetuate the conditions of slavery, the U.S. is also a nation that incarcerates people, especially black people, at a rate that’s not only currently unparalleled, but “almost unexampled in human history.” At this point, more black men are caught in the U.S. criminal justice system than there were in slavery, and this incarceration rate is the result of deliberate policies designed to increase arrests and imprisonment for minor offenses, lobbied for by unlimited millions of dollars from for-profit prison companies. As of 2006, one in eight U.S. prisoners was locked up for a marijuana-related offense, and Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, doesn’t exaggerate when he states that, “No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America … a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.”

[blocktext align=”left”]If average Americans are comfortable with a prison-industrial complex, we can expect NFL owner-types to be much more so. [/blocktext]Which is to say that if the American public is going to be comfortable enough with a prison-industrial complex to allow it to persist as it has, we should only expect NFL owner-types to be much more so. (In an ironic twist, the co-founder of the Corrections Corporation of America, Tom Beasley, used to head up the Tennessee Republican Party and was one of the top three donors to Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Haslam’s last campaign. Bill, of course, is Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s brother.

[blocktext align=”right”]The Curse of Chief Wahoo laughs and wipes its bloody chin.[/blocktext]So it doesn’t matter that the State of Ohio has decriminalized marijuana use, and it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of millions in public funds have gone to subsidize the Browns. Because this is another one of those times when this “public/private partnership” is only private when it comes to the owners’ gain, and public when it comes to the fan’s loss. This time, it’s the loss for a full season (pending appeal) of one of the most talented and productive athletes to ever play in the orange and brown. And the Curse of Chief Wahoo laughs and wipes its bloody chin, again.  ::


Peter Pattakos is a Cleveland attorney and the publisher of Cleveland Frowns.

Helmet image via Shutterstock.

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