Thanks to it happening during the weekend, the news that Martavis Bryant may be suspended for a full year by the NFL feels like it's already a month old, despite only being broken Saturday morning. Short of someone climbing out of a Delorean DMC-12 powered by a radioactive food processor and wearing a distinctively eighties get-up, it's hard to imagine anyone who cares has failed to hear of the story.
What has been lost in all the cries of, "why, God, why?!" has been the how -- as in, how does this actually affect things?
Let's let alone the discussion of how this will affect the team on the field. That can't be answered until free agency, the draft and even training camp are behind us, due in large part to the still-mostly-unknown quantity of Sammie Coates. Instead, let's use this as a case study of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the NFL's drug policy and the salary cap.
What does the NFL drug policy say?
First, let's get something cleared up: the latest news in this saga is that Bryant's potential year-long suspension is the result of missed tests, not failed tests. How does that change things?
More than you might think.
We still know very little about the situation, but one thing is certain: the drug policy (Appendix E) is very clear about how the league handles missed tests -- or, as the policy calls it, "Failure to Appear for Testing." What's interesting is that the punishment being thrown about is a year-long suspension. I don't buy that, because the policy doesn't spell out any case where a year-long suspension would be demanded. And it very clearly states that failure-to-appear violations will not advance a player to the next Intervention Stage:
The discipline issued pursuant to these procedures shall not be dependent upon the Player’s program status within the Intervention Program, nor shall a Player be advanced to the next Intervention Stage based solely upon a violation of these procedures. A violation of these procedures may, however, be a basis for resetting a Player’s discharge date at the discretion of the Medical Director.
This means one of three things: either the reason for the suspension, or the duration, is wrong. Or, possibly, the NFL is being consistently inconsistent in how it handles punishment.
How does it affect the team's salary cap situation?
If there is a silver lining to any part of this, it's that Bryant's salary will be decreased by whatever portion of the season he is suspended. If he is suspended for four weeks, his number would be reduced by four weeks worth of pay. It's important to note that a player's pay is broken up by weeks, not games, so four weeks is worth four seventeenths of his salary, not four sixteenths. It's all moot, though, if a one-year suspension is, indeed, handed down and upheld.
The CBA does have one interesting provision: as we already have explored in NFL 101, if a player retires during the first five years of a contract, the team has the right to attempt to recover a portion of any signing bonus given, equivalent to the time remaining on the contract. For players suspended under the league's drug policy, this is also true, except that it's actually a mandatory return of an equivalent portion of their signing bonus. Because the suspension is likely to be decided on before the season begins, Bryant's salary and up to a year of his signing bonus would be added back to the team's cap for 2016.
How does it affect Bryant's contract?
I have to admit, that last paragraph is an oversimplification. It's completely true in the case of a partial-season suspension; for a full-season suspension, there is technically nothing "returned" except the signing bonus. All it does, in effect, is push everything back a year. That's because a player who misses an entire calendar season does not accrue a season of service. His contract, which currently runs through the 2017 season, would be extended to the 2018 season. The team literally has no financial incentive to part ways with Bryant.
Of course, all of this is just speculation at this point. We don't even know for certain what type of violation he is guilty of, and all information we have is hearsay. We have little information that can be verified at this point. If, however, the violation truly was missed tests, this might be the best news of all. Appeals for this type of violation fall under the "Other Appeals" section of the drug policy, and it's the most wide-open appeals process available. One key here is that Bryant has reportedly checked himself into rehab -- not for drugs, but for depression. That would serve to bolster his appeal if he is, indeed, verifiably depressed. While I doubt such a diagnosis would result in a complete reversal of any suspension that may be given, it could possibly soften the blow.
In the end, though, all of that may be moot. Depression is a serious issue, and reduction or retraction of any suspension would be secondary, at least to Bryant. Treatment and correction of the issue is the top priority. Bryant, the Steelers and the fans may, in the end, simply have to accept the punishment and move on, and hopefully learn something from it. If that results in accurate diagnosis of, and treatment for, depression, then it would all be worth it in the end. I'm sure the Rooneys would agree.