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Randy Gregory’s reinstatement could lead to new approaches by the NFL

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Sometimes you have to drag the league kicking and screaming to a better way, but this time, there might be actual willingness to find one.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

At the moment, it looks like the Randy Gregory story could have a happy outcome. He does still have to meet some uniquely strict requirements as reported by Mike Fisher to actually take the practice field in with the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, such as this.

The league admonished Gregory for his occasional behavior with medical people trying to administer drug tests and for his occasional failure to keep the league abreast of his whereabouts. Indeed, sources stress to me that moving forward Gregory will be “strictly required’’ to inform league officials of his whereabouts at all times -- and that not doing so may carry the same weight as a future failed drug test, which will Gregory will likely be banished from the NFL indefinitely.

But things are on track for him to rejoin the team fully, and while the restrictions and requirements laid on him are exceptional, they do seem designed to give him the best opportunity to resurrect his NFL career.

Still, there is a problem with the whole situation, and it is one that extends to all NFL players facing suspension, whether it be for substance abuse, performance-enhancing drugs, domestic violence, or other offenses such as assault. The current provisions forcing suspended players away from their organization and teammates while they are serving the suspension are pretty much exactly the wrong thing to do.

This is particularly clear in Gregory’s case, where there were associated mental health concerns. Based on what has been reported in the past, he may suffer from anxiety disorder. It is also believed his use of marijuana was in essence an attempt to self-medicate.

There are many reasons that people turn to drugs or alcohol, from social pressures, to a desire to feel a certain way, to curiosity. People may also use alcohol or drugs because of a desire to escape reality, relieve stress, forget a trauma, ease physical or emotional discomfort, manage side effects of other drugs or medications, or try and reduce symptoms of a mental illness. The term self-medicating is used when substances, drugs or alcohol, are abused to mask symptoms of a mental health issue.

- American Addiction Centers

In treating or helping people who are dealing with these kinds of issues, there are several useful approaches. But one thing that is not included, and that can often actually lead to more difficulties, is to isolate the individual and cut them off from those with whom they have a relationship. The locker room of an NFL team is a unique and often strong form of bonding. When a suspended player is effectively cast out from there, they now have one more obstacle in their way to being reinstated.

The current NFL suspension model is mostly rooted in the idea of punishment, with no real concern for assisting and enabling “proper”, i.e. league-approved, behavior. It falls in line with several outmoded attitudes that persist among the owners, including the way marijuana use is regarded. But there may be an opportunity for the league to move towards a more effective and useful approach in the wake of the extensive program Gregory followed to get another chance. Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports discussed this in his recent, excellent article on the topic. And as he reported, an openness to the idea of changing the way things are done extends all the way to the top of the league.

“What Randy Gregory does – if this is ultimately successful – has a chance to impact the NFL and the [player’s union] long-term, because there have been some unique efforts and will continue to be some unique efforts,” one source close to Gregory told Yahoo Sports. “I think Roger [Goodell] is open to listening and evolving how the league handles players who have mental health hurdles and whose substance abuse issues are driven by it. …

“It’s plain and simple: some guys are self-medicating with substances for pain, some for depression and some for other things. Recognizing the mental health aspects and being more open to helping players with something other than just passing or failing tests – you could save some promising careers if you can evolve and embrace some new methods.”

This is likely to be a subject of some hard negotiating in the next CBA, but in this case, there may actually be common ground for the NFL and the NFLPA to seek. The NFLPA wants to do whatever it can to protect its members’ careers and earnings, while the league desires to get the best return it can on players that have been acquired.

If substance abuse is to be addressed more as a health issue to be treated than an infraction to be punished, then it raises the entire question of how appropriate it is to also deprive the player of his income during a suspension. That financial penalty just adds to the stresses that may have triggered the abuse in the first place.

One way that the issue could be addressed would be to place the individual on a type of IR status where they would still be paid. However, players on IR are not allowed to practice until they return to the active list. That is also a hindrance to players as well as the team. It also seems a bit questionable to turn any kind of suspension into a type of paid vacation.

What may be a more useful model for players suspended for substance abuse issues is the practice squad. These players practice and attend meetings along with the members of the 53-man roster, but are obviously not allowed to participate in games. That situation would keep a player who has been suspended for test failures, such as Gregory, involved with his teammates and afford him emotional connectivity as support. It also would allow the team staff to stay involved with him, including monitoring his progress and making sure he is fulfilling all the requirements to be returned to active status. The player would not only be able to stay in contact with his peers and coaches, but would be able to stay in shape and keep his head in the playbook. He could still draw his base salary, although any game-based bonuses would obviously be forfeit. Still, that would avoid the current counterproductive approach to suspension. Robinson’s article had this:

As one source close to Gregory put it: “One example – and this is really a dumb problem – the NFL separates guys from teams when they get suspended. They can’t practice, can’t be in the facility. They’re just out of sight and mind. That can be the worst thing you can do. A lot of these guys are still kids when they come into the league and fail tests. Now you isolate them and cast them out and it only pushes them deeper into problems. … They need the structure and to be part of something. And then on top of it, they need counseling and substance support meetings and other things that keep them going from hour to hour and day to day.”

The last six months of Gregory’s life were deeply rooted in that kind of daily regimen. He had an office job. He worked out. He went to meetings and counseling. He took daily drug tests. All of it in an effort to earn his way back into the NFL.

If you want a player to go through a rigorous rehabilitation effort, it would be much easier to ensure they are complying if you have them in the building every day. Some things, such as counseling and education, could even be conducted in the team facilities. Along with that, there should also be an attempt to de-stigmatize mental health problems so perhaps players are willing to come forward. Counseling and other resources could also be made available on a voluntary basis to players who haven’t been identified through drug testing. It would, after all, be preferable to help them avoid suspension in the first place by helping them address what is leading them to substance abuse.

Not only could this be used for substance abuse issues, but something similar could also be used for other suspensions. Players who have been involved in domestic violence or other assaults could also also be required to participate in education and counseling. In those cases, there is the question of continued compensation, and withholding all or part of their salary may be more appropriate than with substance abusers. But coming to the facility, staying in shape, and above all completing mandated steps to hopefully prevent future outbreaks of violence should still be part of the program, and should in fact be required if the player hopes to be allowed back on the field.

PEDs are another matter, since they are basically seen as a form of cheating. There also is probably less of a need for any counseling or therapy with them, and losing their pay as a form of penalty seems more appropriate. But having to come in, work out, and be supervised by the staff should be a minimum requirement there as well, if for no other reason than to motivate them to turn to legal and allowable ways to improve their performance.

There are other things that would have to be worked out to make this all function. One objection from the owners might be having to pay the salary of players that are not on the field due to what are seen as their own choices. Hopefully, that could be sorted out in favor of investing in the individuals who play the game.

This is, of course, just one guy’s idea of a better way to do things. But for once, there is a glimmer of hope that the NFL may get something right.

Above all, let us hope for the sake of players wrestling with personal demons that things will get better one day. It is always preferable to save a life and a career than to discard them.