Last August as the Steelers preseason was drawing to a close, it was announced that standout wide receiver Martavis Bryant would be suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Now, it is rumored Bryant is facing a one-year suspension after another rumored violation.
While there is much latitude in consequences for personal conduction violations, the NFL's substance abuse policy is very clear. If Bryant is facing a one-year suspension, it means that he has failed to avail himself of help and that he has had repeatedly failed drug tests.
Unlike the NFL's personal conduct policy, the substance abuse policy is very clear. All players are tested at least once during the preseason. Once players start failing drug tests, they enter a three-stage program.
After the first violation, players participate in a treatment plan through a clinician or facility and face fines, but no suspension. Without further violations, the player is discharged from the intervention program. If he is non-compliant with treatment or fails more drug tests, he moves on to stage two, which includes fines and suspensions of up to six games in addition to participation in an approved treatment plan.
Since Bryant is facing a year suspension, he is probably in stage three. During this stage, players must submit to unannounced drug tests. Violations during this stage result in year-long bans. For marijuana, the ban is slightly shorter at ten months instead of a full year. Once players face suspensions of this length, the commissioner is in charge of reinstating them. Normally, players remain at stage three for the entirety of their careers, which means they are subject to drug testing and face long suspensions for infractions.
If Bryant has worked through the stages of the drug policy and has found himself facing a year suspension, it means that his treatment wasn't effective, or that he was non-compliant in his treatment program. It also means that he probably failed more than one drug test. After all, the first infraction does not result in suspension at all, and the second results in a four-game suspension, which he served at the beginning of the 2015 season. Because of regulations involving confidentiality, Bryant's personal medical information, including information about his drug use, cannot be released.
Bryant's predicament is reminiscent of the Josh Gordon fiasco. Gordon, a 2012 supplemental second-round draft pick and receiver for the Cleveland Browns, has violated the NFL's substance abuse policy numerous times and had to sit out the 2015 season due to his repeated infractions. He also had tremendous talent, leading the NFL in receiving yards in 2013 with 1,646 in just 14 games. Since then, Gordon has seen minimal playing time, generating more attention for his off-field antics than his prowess on the field.
Though Bryant was drafted in the fourth round, he had top-level talent. In fact, one of the reasons he was still available so late in the draft was because of character concerns. The Steelers gamble has paid off so far. Despite his suspension in 2015, Bryant racked up 765 yards and six touchdowns on fifty receptions. He generated some negative buzz because he dropped the ball so frequently-- he had the highest drop rate on the team. The fact that the dropped passes garnered more attention than his suspension was a sign that both fans and analysts appeared to have forgiven Bryant for his substance abuse issues. His on-field performance more than made up for it. The biggest question was whether or not Bryant could fulfill his tremendous potential and how big of a star he could actually become.
Now, however, his predicament will sting even more. Proving his worth after the suspension was a double-edged sword. He made tremendous contributions to the team, providing a vertical threat that, when coupled with Antonio Brown, confounded opposing defenses and propelled the Steelers offense to elite levels.
The Steelers trusted Bryant. In fact, their investment in Bryant has come at a price, the development of 2015 third-round draft pick Sammie Coates. Coates saw some playing time when Antonio Brown was sidelined with a concussion in the postseason, but for the most part, the team was partial to Bryant over Coates as a backup.
After his suspension, Bryant said he learned from his mistakes. When it comes to substance abuse, however, lessons are easily forgotten. From the outside looking in, it is difficult to understand how someone would sacrifice their career over drugs. Chances are that Bryant is asking himself the same question as he faces a one-year suspension.