PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Cleveland Browns fans should be ecstatic this week.
They should be marveling at the fact that their team -- the same franchise that's put up exactly three winning seasons in the last 20 years and only two since returning to Cleveland as an expansion team in 1999 -- managed to pull Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with their first-round pick and then trade up to get Heisman Trophy-winning Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in the same round. They should be overjoyed that their team just extended the contract of their other standout cornerback, Joe Haden, for five years.
They should be at least grateful that their team is taking enough positive steps to distance itself from the legal quandary facing owner Jimmy Haslam's Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, which is being scrutinized by the Federal Bureau of Investigations for potential fraud related to a fuel rebate offer.
Instead, the Browns' fan base is being subjected to its own, endless screening of Reefer Madness. Thanks to the dogged efforts of ESPN's Outside The Lines crack investigative team, we've learned that Browns' wide receiver and potential Johnny Football target Josh Gordon failed a drug test for marijuana. Since he also failed a test for codeine-laced cough syrup a few months earlier, he may be facing a season-long ban by the NFL.
It would be a tough loss, considering Gordon caught 87 passes for more than 1,600 yards and nine touchdowns in a fairly weak Browns offense last season, but it would be a punishment almost completely out of step with the rest of the country's views on marijuana handed out by a league that's still fighting Joe Namath/Johnny Unitas culture wars 50 years later.
It's going to make NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell clutch his pearls into a fine powder to hear this, but the country's actually coming around on marijuana. Forget the fact that this year's Super Bowl teams -- the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos -- came from states where voters legalized the recreational use of marijuana on a local level. Forget, too, that Alaska, Oregon, California, Nevada, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Minnesota, Alabama, North Carolina, New York and the Browns' home state of Ohio have largely decriminalized it. We'll even let it slide that Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and New Hampshire have OK'd it for medical purposes.
Last year, for the first time, a majority of U.S. citizens came out in favor of legalization of marijuana. A Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans felt it should be legalized, compared to just 12% the first time Gallup asked the question in 1969. That gap isn't closing either, According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in February, 70% of respondents between 18 and 29 believe marijuana should be legalized. Comparatively, 32% of people 65 and older support legalization.
Guess which age group nearly two thirds of NFL owners fall into?
With retirement-age owners overseeing teams with rosters that have an average age of 25 to 27, the NFL's archaic policy isn't so much unexpected as it is unfortunate. However, it's a bit surprising that a league whose players sustained 152 concussions last year and whose veterans were offered a $765 million settlement for concussion-related ailments would dismiss marijuana outright. Especially when players like Pittsburgh Steelers veteran Ryan Clark come out and say players are using it as both a stress reliever and pain medication.
So how do you conjure outrage over a substance that this country is increasingly at ease with? It's becoming such a huge source of legitimate business and tax dollars that our own Debra Borchardt dedicates a beat to it? Get one of your media partners to create that outrage for you. In 2011, ESPN agreed to pay the NFL $1.9 billion a year through 2021 for the broadcast rights to Monday Night Football. Since that time, it has dedicated an entire issue of ESPN The Magazine to football's marijuana problem, dedicated six months to an investigation that revealed college kids smoke weed and dragged in former NFL quarterback Mark Brunell to support stricter NFL marijuana rules based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
When news about Gordon's latest suspension broke, ESPN followed up its Outside The Lines Reports with a player bio page full of admonishments.
Keep in mind, this is a league that tests for marijuana but still doesn't test for human growth hormone (HGH) -- which can actually enhance performance and provide an advantage. In fact, it's a league that makes the harshness of its marijuana policy contingent upon its so-far nonexistent HGH mandate. Even if the NFL does change its marijuana policy over the summer, as ESPN and Bleacher Report say it's considering, the Browns' Gordon would still be held to the old standard for no reason whatsoever.
That the NFL is even considering a tradeoff of lighter punishments for marijuana and other drugs in exchange for HGH testing is a step in the right direction, though it still leaves the league far behind the times. The World Anti-Doping Agency, for example, raised the in-competition cannabis threshold tenfold last year in response to changing international views on marijuana use. The NFL's threshold is still substantially beneath that point despite not only changing U.S. marijuana laws, but the federal government's permissive stance toward both state-by-state marijuana use and banks that do business with state-licensed marijuana companies.
The NFL's trying to put as progressive a face on this as possible. After word got out about the league potentially trading lighter marijuana penalties for HGH testing, ESPN finally suggested that it might be time to rethink the league's weed policy. It knocked Gordon every way it could before asking that question -- implying that he still deserved draconian punishment for being a knucklehead -- but at least it finally stopped the "drugs 're bad" lecture long enough to ask why.
Cleveland Browns fans have seen previous draft picks Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Charlie Frye and Brandon Weeden turn Cleveland into a town where quarterbacks go to die. Now that their team has drafted the future in Johnny Manziel and have someone young and talented for him to throw to, the NFL and ESPN want desperately to wake them from that dream. For a network that rode Johnny Manziel for ratings as if he was a third-stringer on the New York Jets and a league trying to wring every eyeball and dollar it can out of franchises, this holier-than-thou stance on unsettled marijuana rules blows a little more smoke than Browns fans should have to inhale.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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