JOSH GORDON, a Cleveland Browns receiver with abilities that separate him from his peers, spent Friday pleading his case before an arbitrator in an effort to avoid a minimum yearlong suspension after testing positive a third time for recreational drugs.
We know this because the transparency of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy ensures that every development in Gordon’s case is made public. Less than an hour from Gordon’s workplace, a high-profile world golf event proceeded without Dustin Johnson, whose absence has cast a spotlight on the opacity of the PGA Tour’s drug policy.
Three days after Johnson (Dutch Fork/Coastal Carolina) withdrew from the World Golf Championships event at Firestone Country Club, he took an indefinite leave from the tour, citing his need to seek “professional help for personal challenges I have faced.” He also described what he was embarking upon as a “mission of self-improvement.”
The ambiguity of Johnson’s explanation, combined with a deafening silence from the PGA Tour, which released a statement saying it had nothing to add to Johnson’s remarks, created an information vacuum that commenters on social media and the Internet rushed to fill. On Friday, the rampant speculation about Johnson’s hard-partying lifestyle gained credence with the publication of a Golf.com article that, using a vague unnamed source, reported Johnson had been suspended for six months after a third failed drug test and a second for cocaine.
A few hours after the Golf.com article was posted online, the PGA Tour released a statement saying that Johnson had taken a voluntary leave of absence and had not been suspended. The wording called to mind the coach who is told by his bosses that if he resigns he won’t be fired. Not surprising, really, given that the tour offices are populated by lawyers trained to stand on semantics, not principles.
Unlike the major North American professional sports leagues and the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours, the PGA Tour has steadfastly refused to announce fines or suspensions. Tour officials do not acknowledge discipline meted out for acts like using foul language on the course, getting into an on-course altercation with another player or testing positive for a recreational drug.
The reasoning, tour officials say, is that in most cases, few people know about the original transgression, so why broadcast it to the masses?
The tour makes an exception for doping offenses, but since it initiated its drug-testing policy in 2009, it has ensnared one player, a journeyman. Most of the discipline meted out for behavior unbecoming of a professional that the public finds out about comes courtesy of a court case (John Daly’s multiple suspensions) or a police blotter (Matt Every’s 2010 arrest on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession).
In 2012, when Johnson returned from an 11-week absence that he ascribed to injuries incurred in a Jet Ski accident, he stammered when asked how exactly the injury had happened and gave an answer that was strangely short on details. Was he vague because he had not actually been injured and was instead serving a suspension for a failed drug test?
The tour’s nontransparency on disciplinary matters casts everyone in a dark light. Every prolonged absence from competition raises eyebrows and invites speculation. While Every didn’t try to hide his suspension, it was not by choice.
“When I got in trouble it was in the papers, so people knew when I was suspended what it was for,” Every said Friday. “It’s not like I could hide that as easily as someone else who fails a test or two and no one’s ever heard of it.”
Referring to the tour policy, Every added, “If they decide not to make things public, why wouldn’t you hide the reason you’re not playing? Who’s going to voluntarily say, ‘Hey, I got busted for this?’ ”