Josh Gordon: The Final Straw?

The NFL season is back, and with it comes personnel news.  Are the Steelers and Antonio Brown going to smooth things over?  Is Tom Brady getting along with his boss?  Will Dez Bryant find work?  For me, though, the most interesting move to date was New England’s trade with Cleveland to acquire the services of wide receiver Josh Gordon.

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Gordon is a supremely talented and, so far, tragic figure.  He checks all the boxes for any team looking for a star wideout—he is tall, has excellent hands, displays well above-average strength, and has elite top-end speed.  In his marquee 2013 season with the Browns, Gordon dazzled with consecutive 200-yard receiving games, led the league in receiving yards, and collected an All-Pro nod. All while missing the Browns’ first two games due to suspension.  The moment he steps on the field, he’s one of the best players in the game.

His problem, though, has been getting on the field.  On top of the 2013 suspension, he only appeared in five games in 2014 while dealing with league suspensions for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and further team suspensions.  Another positive test for alcohol use landed him a full year suspension, and he did not play in 2015.  In 2016, he failed more tests while he was petitioning the league for reinstatement and, after receiving a shortened suspension, entered in-patient rehabilitation treatment.  His 2017 season consisted of a few games played after finally receiving conditional reinstatement.

To Gordon’s credit, he has been publicly candid about his addictions and problems with alcohol and recreational use of marijuana and prescription drugs.  He has owned up to playing most games under the influence of something, and he has been very open about his struggles with staying clean.  After sticking with him for many years, however, the Browns decided this month that the time had come to part ways.  Stories emerged that the Browns were looking to deal Gordon, or to release him.

This week, the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots finalized a deal to obtain Gordon’s services with Cleveland, receiving a fifth-round draft pick in return.  New England appeared to hedge its risk by requiring that if Gordon fails to appear in at least ten games this year, Cleveland will send a later round pick back to the Pats.  All in all, the Patriots are taking a risk on a supreme talent for very little cost.  If Gordon pans out, combining his ability with Hall-of-Fame-quarterback-to-be Tom Brady may be lethal to opponents.

Sports franchises aren’t the only employers to face tricky personnel situations and attempt to manage their risks.  Anyone reading this post is likely to face a situation where a valued employee or prospect presents a possibility of risk, whether due to personal behavior, past mistakes, or a number of other risks.  What are some options for minimizing those risks?

First, specific to substance abuse issues, any employer needs to regularly review its testing policy to ensure that it meets the business’s needs and appropriately keeps tabs on the workforce.  Additional scrutiny for past violators given a second chance should be developed with assistance of legal counsel to ensure compliance with state law, and then closely followed.  Second, any employer giving an employee a final chance should consider a “last chance agreement” that explicitly spells out zero-tolerance expectations for further violations of policy.  Finally, consistent and regular documentation and follow-up with an employee about his or her future actions will be critical to defending your decision if you must eventually cut ties.

I hope everything works out for Josh Gordon.  But it’s clear that this is his last chance.