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Josh Gordon is a victim of the NFL's discipline delusion

Games need rules, and leagues need to enforce them. That's not quite what the NFL is doing in upholding its year-long suspension of Josh Gordon.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Guide

It depends on the draft and the drafter, and on the amount of alcohol consumed and the volume of faith in things working out in favor of the most enjoyable possible outcome. But it surely happened thousands of times, at some point last weekend, in some room soggy with the smell of corn chips and dudes, that a person drafting a fantasy football team decided that it was worth drafting Josh Gordon, who was one of the best players in the NFL during the 2013 season.

This was likely a couple of hours on. Gordon led the NFL in receiving by a healthy margin last year, but he was being drafted after 40 or so other receivers because he had received a year-long suspension from the NFL earlier this offseason, and was undertaking a long-shot appeal to get it reduced as those fantasy drafts were happening. So Gordon's name would only have been called sometime after those of many lesser players, and not until the moment when the prospect of drafting the number three receiver on the Bengals or the number one receiver on the Raiders became less appealing than betting that the NFL would not uphold the year-long suspension of one of the league's most exciting players over the 0.01 extra nanograms of THC per milliliter that showed up in one, but not both, of Gordon's league-mandated drug tests.

There is a reason why it took multiple hours and multiple drinks for this particular bet on Josh Gordon's immediate future to get placed, though. The NFL reminded everyone why on Wednesday, when the league upheld Gordon's suspension on appeal. In doing so, the NFL behaved just as everyone that follows the NFL knew they ultimately would. This predictable exercise and defense of its own authority is, in a way that's satirical without quite being funny, more or less what defines the NFL in 2014.

The NFL has spent its summer making one baffling, totally insane and technically reasonable decision after another

Fantasy football is not the same thing as football, of course. But a great part of its appeal, and the reason it sends off its signature faint inklings of ickiness, is the way in which it quantifies this complex and horrific and fascinating and otherwise unique game into distinct numerical units with names attached. The idea is to give us the experience of being general managers, building a team out of the players we like most and then winning with it in a weightless imaginary universe that's rational right down to the decimal point. But in reducing and reducing and reducing the NFL to a series of faux-rational A-versus-B decisions, and turning the players themselves into blank integers to be added and dropped, fantasy football really makes us more like Roger Goodell.

Fantasy football shrinks and quiets the amazing improbable nonsense that makes football what it is until it becomes governable and rational. This is not what football is, of course, and it's not why we watch it. We watch it, to pick an example at random, to see Josh Gordon do the things that only Josh Gordon can do. We watch to see seemingly impossible things happen, and because they so routinely do. This makes it that much more perfect, and ridiculous and wrong, that the NFL has spent the summer making one baffling, high-handed, totally insane and technically reasonable decision after another.

In Josh Gordon's case, as in all the variously appalling decisions that have preceded it, the NFL is sticking to its rules and defending its treasured brand with what it clearly sees as pure, reasonable discipline. The funny part, and the sad part, is how insufficient and circular and unreasonable it all is.


How the Gordon suspension came to be is easy enough to explain: for all the Stages and Tiers and various acronyms involved, the fact of it is that Gordon violated the substance abuse policy that the NFL and the NFL Players Association negotiated back in 2010. That he didn't violate it by very much, that he had passed more than 70 previous drug tests, that only one of Gordon's two samples in this case even violated the protocol's supremely strict standard at all -- this is all true enough, but also irrelevant where the actual offense is concerned, according to those rules.

The suspension, while laughably onerous -- or less-laughably onerous when contrasted with the far lighter one given to Ray Rice for beating his fiancee unconscious, or the one that Colts owner Jim Irsay has still not received for driving while pilled-to-the-gills and in possession of tens of a great many prescription drugs that had not been prescribed to him -- is also just the penalty that this offense carries for players in Gordon's position. There is a rulebook, and this is in it.

That will not make the decision seem any less ridiculous to those inclined to see marijuana as not a big deal, or to those who see the white-collar authoritarianism of the NFL's disciplinary process as distasteful and dumb. But it is also all right there in the rules, and the NFL exists in large part to enforce those rules. If the NFL -- or the former league official appointed by commissioner Roger Goodell to handle the appeal, which seems like a same-difference sort of thing -- had opted to reduce Gordon's suspension, it would have been upholding the spirit of the drug treatment protocols, but not specifically the letter of that particular bespoke law. It could have honored the rules without allowing the rules to overwhelm the thing that matters most, which is also the only thing that the NFL really has to sell, which is this crazy, compelling game. But this is not something that the NFL does.

No, the NFL just keeps doing the opposite of this; it makes indefensible decisions, and then defends them on the grounds that these decisions were made by the NFL. This bloat, and its attendant tendency to circular self-service, is a familiar thing that happens to institutions, and it is not a good thing. It happens when institutions become too big, or too unaccountable, or too otherwise distant from and uninterested in anything but the performance of their own authority; it is what we see over and over from the NCAA as it circles the drain during its honkingly baroque terminal phase.

And so it is with the NFL, in this case and those others, as it goes about exercising and re-exercising its authority in a vacuum of its own devising. The rules are the rules, and of course games need rules. The league needs to enforce them, and of course it should. But the NFL is doing something else, here, just as it did with Ray Rice. It's performing its rituals of no-excuses enforcement with an unexplaining and uncompromising vigor that's deliriously and crazily and willfully out of context. The result is a sort of meta-discipline that feels all the more arbitrary and unsatisfying because of its pretensions to cold, corporate logic.

The NFL believes that the decisions it makes are just, and believes as much because the NFL is making those decisions; it believes that its punishments are just, specifically because they are the NFL's punishments. If it was predictable that the NFL would behave exactly as it has, it's because the performance and defense of its signature tautologies is now reflex, and just sort of what the NFL does.

The game surprises us, which is why we come back. The league seems to have defined its duty as being the opposite of that: to replace football's irrepressible instinct for surprise with the league office's own buttoned-up and utterly unreasonable version of reason. The NFL does not just enforce order, it seeks to create it and maintain it in a way that is coming to crowd out everything else. In this sense, an appeal on a dicey suspension is the same thing to the NFL as an overzealous touchdown celebration: it is a thing that does not fit, and so it is a thing that cannot stand.

And so of course the NFL saw no reason to overturn or reconsider or compromise, here or anywhere; it was reviewing a decision made by the NFL, and therefore a decision that was inherently considered and correct. This is how the NFL justifies all its many unjustifiable aspects, to itself if not to anyone else. This is the NFL's most stubborn and self-defeating fantasy, and it's no fun at all.