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The National Football League announced it has suspended Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Bryant has indicated he will not appeal the suspension and will sit out for at least one year.
Bryant was also suspended for four games in 2015 for testing positive for marijuana, and one of his agents, Brian Fettner, told USA Today Bryant would enter rehab for drug and mental health treatment: "His isn't a party issue. It's a coping issue and a depression issue, and he's got to take care of it."
The Steelers seemed less sympathetic. GM Kevin Colbert released a statement saying the team is "very disappointed that Martavis Bryant has put himself in this current situation of being suspended by the league ... We are hopeful that Martavis will take the necessary steps to develop the discipline in his personal life to become a successful player and a good teammate."
As Deadspin's Tom Ley pointed out, Bryant's agents and his employers appear to be viewing the situation from different angles. "These are medical and mental health issues," Ley wrote, "being talked about in basically the same terms you'd apply to keeping the pads level or the gap closed, as if they were matters of focus and willpower." And how long will the league continue to punish players for doing something that more cities and states are saying is perfectly legal.
Despite the expanding legalization and decriminalization of medical and recreational marijuana at the state level, private employers are still free to set their own guidelines regarding drugs illegal at the federal level. Even in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana, the state Supreme Court found that Dish Network was allowed to fire a quadriplegic telephone operator who used medical marijuana while he was off-duty to treat violent muscle spasms, after he failed a drug test.
The court said that it was the federal prohibition on marijuana that mattered, so unless federal drug laws follow states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, employees can be reprimanded or fired for using marijuana, no matter how, when, or why he or she is using it.
The NFL could always decide that marijuana is either not worth testing for or not worth suspending players over positive tests. But it is unlikely the league would cede that kind of authority absent a change to the legal landscape or the league's collective bargaining agreement with players.
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