A man, not a metaphor.

Photographer: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Josh Gordon, Athletes and Cautionary Tales

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

Josh Gordon, the National Football League’s resident pariah, has written a powerful open letter to his critics, reminding us that despite their hugely public profiles, professional athletes are individuals about whom we might know little to nothing at all.

Gordon recently failed another drug test, this time for alcohol, the latest in a string of behavioral and substance abuse problems that have led to multiple suspensions. With every report of Gordon’s bad behavior, be it marijuana use or drunken driving, commentators who have never met him come out swinging. Stephen A. Smith is “done” with Gordon; Cris Carter is “concerned” about the wide receiver and thinks the best thing for him would be for the Cleveland Browns to cut him; Charles Barkley warns that “Josh Gordon is going to die if he keeps going on this road.”

In his letter, published on the Cauldron, Gordon takes responsibility for his transgressions while sending a clear message to these commentators: “You don’t even know me.” He writes about his impoverished childhood, escaping a life of crime through football -- a familiar refrain among NFL players. He explains in detail the circumstances and actions that led to his latest positive test while calling out “those of you who traffic in lies and innuendo over fact.”

To some, Gordon’s letter came off as a guy in trouble making excuses for his actions. SBNation’s Josh Finney writes:

Gordon uses this platform to lash out at those that pretend to affect a personal view to his life and history in the league. This letter doesn't seek forgiveness about the mistakes that he's made, it seeks to shame the sports analysts who called him a pothead. In the situation Gordon finds himself in now, I find it challenging to accept a scything retaliatory tone when humility and apology are called for.

What this letter proves to me is that Josh Gordon has excuses. The fact that he points to the .01 “over the limit” DUI bust, or the 15ng of pot in the wrong sample, or the beers that he had while the league endorses drinking responsibility, is that he feels that he's a victim of circumstances and is not responsible for his own behavior.

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler has another take:

Gordon isn’t making excuses for his behavior. It’s just that the explanations of his incidents with the league still require more details. Gordon hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt to ignore them. “Inadvertently” inhaling secondhand smoke and not knowing his zero-drinking stipulation might stretch into the first few days of the offseason don't seem like things that just happen. (If the second part is true, shame on Gordon’s camp for not reminding him 100 times over about the end date. Wonder how many of his teammates knew about the stipulation on the way to Vegas.) Missing team activities doesn’t just happen. There are rumblings from the team's office that Gordon's timeliness was an issue more than once late in 2014.

And it’s still unclear from Gordon's letter what concrete steps he plans to take to curb poor decision-making.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Dennis Manoloff thinks Gordon’s letter comes off as passive aggressive:

There have been a litany of problems involving Josh Gordon. He’s put his team in harm's way time and time and time again with his action. When I read this letter, I felt like it was a letter of reinstatement for the 2016 season. I just didn’t understand the point, really.

If I’m a Browns fan, assuming they hang on to him, I want Josh Gordon to figure out a way to get on the field, and stay on the field, and oh by the way, give maximum effort. A guy who seemingly would be incredibly grateful for his umpteenth opportunity on the field, and this is how he repays the organization? And you could make a case, perhaps, that Gordon’s lack of performance foiled the Browns’ playoff chances. This business about him wanting to be the best football player he can be, it sure didn’t look like it in 2014.

That last take by Manoloff was especially hot -- I can think of a “litany of problems” the Browns had other than Gordon that caused them to miss the playoffs -- while Finney and Fowler took a somewhat more reasonable approach. Some fans I’ve talked to think the letter reads as a textbook denial of addiction.

Such a diagnosis should be left to behavioral psychologists and trained medical experts, but all of these reactions miss Gordon's larger point: You don’t know me. Pundits are reacting to his insistence that “I am not a drug addict; I am not an alcoholic” when they should be focused on this: “I am not someone who deserves to be dissected and analyzed like some tragic example of everything that can possibly go wrong for a professional athlete.”

Too often in sportswriting, and in the news media in general, we take an individual situation and attempt to derive broader meaning from it, to use one person as the poster boy for an overarching problem. It happens to the best of us -- heck, I’m doing it right now. But Gordon’s letter serves as a welcome reminder: Athletes are not a metaphor.

Smith's response to the letter was also off point: “We're not speaking about you as an individual, we're speaking about what you represent.” Apparently to Smith, Gordon represents missed opportunity, a poor black kid blowing his chance to get out of the streets. That’s a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a 23-year-old who’s still figuring things out, by a grown man who doesn’t exactly represent progress himself.

Gordon’s struggles aren’t about young hubris or self-victimization or, goodness, black pathology. They’re about Gordon, full stop.

From his letter, it seems clear that Gordon realizes he has a long path to redemption in front of him. He would just like some time and space to navigate it without strangers with microphones giving him directions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net