Saturday, January 21, 2017

Josh Gordon: Judge Me, Judge Me Not

Appeared on, February 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Entering a fantasy draft a couple of years ago, Josh Gordon was just a name buried deep on my list of wide receivers. While talented, the second-year Cleveland Browns receiver was facing a two-game suspension to start the season for some transgression or another and was stuck on a team with bad quarterback play and little fantasy pedigree (where for art thou William Green and Dennis Northcutt?). He wasn’t a prospect; he was a dart to throw at the draft board, an inconsequential roster-filler.   

True to fantasy cheat sheet form, Gordon remained available even as kickers and defenses started to be plucked from the draft pool. Preparing for that ever-important 12th round selection (palms sweating, friends heckling…or not), I remembered an article I’d read on sleepers that was betting big on Gordon. Of course you read enough of these pieces by the myriad of fantasy experts and eventually everyone has a chance at fantasy stardom.

Nevertheless, 12th round selections aren’t something to over-think, so Gordon was the selection, whoever the heck he was.

Yeah…whoever Josh Gordon was. By mid-season he was in my starting lineup and by fantasy year-end he was putting cash and a championship belt around my waist. Despite only playing 14 games in 2013, Gordon scored nine touchdowns and led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards. He morphed from a late-round sleeper into absolute stud. It seemed a lock that Gordon wouldn’t be available in the 12th round of fantasy drafts again for many years to come. 

But things are rarely that simple with Josh Gordon.

A year and a half later, Gordon is no longer a non-descript fantasy commodity. I know all about my former 12th round pick now. Unfortunately, he’s more infamous for acts off the field than he is famous for performance on it. 

What have I learned about Gordon? I know that the NFL’s two-game suspension to open the 2013 was the result of a positive test for codeine, an infraction Gordon attributed to his use of cough medicine. In isolation, that seems like a minor infraction, but Gordon’s transgressions are more a series of events than singular acts of immaturity.

Puzzled as to why rogue cough syrup would result in a suspension, I learned that Gordon entered the NFL with a record. While at Baylor, he took a liking to marijuana and eventually smoked his way off the team and into the NFL’s 2012 Supplemental Draft.

After that fabulous 2013 season, I couldn’t help but notice that Gordon “celebrated” his NFL arrival with another positive marijuana test and, for ill measure, a DWI during the 2014 offseason. The unconscionable lapses in judgment cost Gordon the first ten games of last season. 

But that wasn’t enough; it seems it’s never enough with Gordon.

Despite covering my ears, I heard Gordon broke a team rule and was suspended for Cleveland’s season finale this past December. Undaunted by the team’s paltry discipline, he consumed a few adult pops and promptly flunked an alcohol test – screening administered as a result of his DWI last summer – in January.

My one-time 12th round pick, instant fantasy stud and budding NFL star now faces a one-year suspension and a dubious NFL future.


It was so much easier when I didn’t know Gordon, when I didn’t have any expectations and when he just shocked the world with his amazing ability to track a flying football into his hands and create magic after the catch. But it’s never that simple with Josh Gordon. I think I already said that. Sorry…lost in the moment.

Several former athletes and talking heads share my sadness and anger and frustration and fear…and boy did they feel compelled to express their thoughts and stories. Last summer, Hall of Fame WR Cris Carter compared Gordon’s situation to his own struggles with substance abuse and suggested that the Browns should cut Gordon (just as Buddy Ryan and the Philadelphia Eagles had cut Carter long ago). Stephen A. Smith filleted Gordon (basically left him for dead) on ESPN’s First Take last summer. And NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, a man who lost a brother to substance abuse, was brutally honest when he proclaimed that death was the outcome should Josh Gordon continue on his current path.

Heavy stuff. Serious. Disturbing. Honest. Personal.

The assumption made by Carter and Barkley is that their experiences with substance abuse are synonymous with Gordon’s struggles. Similarly, Smith dismissed Gordon as just another entry on a long list of athletes who allowed drugs and alcohol to claim a promising career. Smith’s mental Rolladeck of cautionary tales has presumably grown so long that he declared himself “done” with Gordon. Stephen A. Smith incapable of further commentary? Stop the press. 

To all of this well-intended advice or visceral criticism, Gordon responded with a thoughtful, poignant letter. In it, he thanked Barkley, Carter and Smith for their concern and then detailed his profound lack of a substantive relationship with any of these instantaneous Josh Gordon experts. According to Gordon, Smith has “never had a meaningful conversation” with him, Carter’s “never met” him and Barkley has never “exchanged a single word” with him. Yet they are all, through their own experiences, qualified to comment so passionately on him?

Having exposed his would-be mentors and media-parents for their ignorance, Gordon then expanded on his life – one that began in poverty in a very rough section of Houston, Texas – and owned his mistakes. He also attributed his latest personal failures to poor choices or a misunderstanding of the rules, not drug addiction. It was a fascinating response. The letter is available in its entirety on Read it.

Gordon was compelling, as were Smith, Carter and Barkley. Who is right? In a perfect world, all of them are. I hope - like Barkley, Smith and Carter do - that Gordon realizes the precarious nature of his personal and professional situation and makes constructive changes in his life. I also hope that Gordon is being genuine when he contends that the problems that led to his regretful behavior aren’t as deep as Smith, Carter and Barkley think they are. And I hope that Gordon has truly made progress, as his letter alleges.

Do I believe Gordon? It’s not that I do or do not – I can’t. After all of his failings, there’s absolutely no reason to believe he will get clean and stay clean. At this moment, I wouldn’t bet a dime on him playing another down in the NFL. However, regarding the reaction to his many faults, he does have a point. Gordon’s biggest rub with his court of high-profile critics is that they branded him as another drug-addicted, reckless athlete headed toward an almost certain death. Maybe is his; hopefully he isn’t. Regardless, Smith, Carter and Barkley were quick to use superficial information and apply what they assumed to be synonymous personal experiences (and there are no perfectly synonymous human experiences) to arrive at a verdict on an individual they barely know.  

But that’s what we do now. We judge (and some get paid for it…handsomely). We rush to judgment with inadequate information and after insufficient reflection. There is good and there is bad. Group A will be booed; group B will be cheered. A—holes over here; good guys over there. Athletes worth my time, take a seat; athletes not worth a passing thought, get out of here. Role models, take a seat in the front; derelicts, move to the back, preferably out of sight. The declared heroes get their pictures hung on the wall; the convicted villains are pointed at, cursed and ridiculed.

It is not that simple. Every locker room is a bisection of society. They are populated with good guys doing good things, bad guys doing bad things, good guys doing bad things and bad guys creating illusions with shallow acts of good - and everything in between. Where does Josh Gordon fall on the continuum? I have no idea. Gordon’s three famous critics don’t either – and that’s the point. What we do know is he is a 23-year-old man whose life is at a crossroads. His story is off to a rough start, but he still controls the ending. Of course there’s one conclusion the critics and the critiqued can agree on: Josh Gordon finding his way back on to the field and being selected in fantasy drafts well in advance of the 12th round for years to come. 

Over to you, Josh. Make it happen.

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