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The Invisible Josh Gordon

The troubled NFL player's letter was a plea not for help, but to be seen

Leon Halip/Getty Images

The late Ralph Ellison is still teaching us today, often through imperfect vessels. The opening passage of his classic novel, Invisible Man, echoes for me as a mantra of African American life: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Whether through outright prohibition or overt omission, we black people are rarely characters in our own stories, and our media often have problems discerning actual human beings in a forest of negative statistics. This remains an issue even when said black people are making millions of dollars playing football for a living.

Josh Gordon, the wunderkind wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, clearly wants to be seen. In a lengthy open letter posted to Medium on Thursday, Gordon expressed consternation with those media personalities and fans who thought they were helping. He didn’t have a “problem,” he wrote—at least, not the one everyone seems to think he has: addiction.

Gordon now faces a year-long NFL suspension after testing positive yet again for a banned substance. This has been a recurring theme throughout the 23-year-old’s college and pro careers, which have been pockmarked by suspensions related to drugs. Gordon either hasn’t been able to stop smoking marijuana, or can’t seem to avoid being in the same place where marijuana is.

His most recent failed test, however, involved alcohol. After being arrested for DWI in July 2014 and separately testing positive for marijuana, Gordon was banned for 10 games—a punishment that provoked a lot of hubbub about the league’s priorities. Around the same time, then-Ravens running back Ray Rice was supended only two games for punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator, rendering her unconscious. Gordon was reinstated in November, the terms of which prohibited him from drinking alcohol.

The most recent setback has renewed Gordon’s lease on the title of The Player We Most Need to Worry About. He is the kind of young black man who in a different context might be blithely labeled “at risk,” as if the most risk he causes is to you, not him. Typically, that is a way to make a young black man like Gordon invisible under the guise of caring about his wellbeing. Alas, he is paid millions to catch footballs for a living, and so a few of those fellow black men who are paid to pontificate on sports have shown a particular interest in saving him.

Gordon began the letter with a thank-you paragraph directed specifically at three such men, sports analysts Charles Barkley, Stephen A. Smith, and Cris Carter.

“Thank you for your recent outpouring of concern about my well being. In what has been a difficult time for my family, friends and fans, you — and those like you — have taken it upon yourselves to express just how much you care about me and my future,” Gordon wrote. “For that, I am truly appreciative.” If you stop there, that sounds like a lovely sentiment directed at three guys who’d directed empathy, anger, and morbid warnings in Gordon’s direction in the last year, some crossing the line into psychological diagnoses based on reporting they hadn’t done themselves.

Carter, an ESPN analyst and a former colleague of mine at HBO Sports, endured his own troubles with drugs while playing wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles before an unceremonious firing served as his wake-up call. He went on to a Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Minnesota Vikings. Carter opined last July that Gordon needed to endure a similar setback.

"I feel for the kid," he said on an ESPN radio show shortly after news broke that Gordon had tested positive for marijuana for a second time as a pro. “My situation was very, very similar. If I'm the Cleveland Browns—and it's gut-wrenching for me to say this—I really think that the only thing that’s going to help the kid is if they release him."

After Gordon’s July DUI arrest, ESPN host Stephen A. Smith was outright dismissive. "I'm done with Josh Gordon," he said. "I harbor no sympathy for him whatsoever, and anybody who disagrees with me, tough, I'll get over it."

Just this past Tuesday on ESPN’s "His and Hers," NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley got outright morbid. He worried that Gordon, like Barkley’s late brother Daryl, was falling victim to addiction and was “going to die if he keeps going on this road he’s going."

Gordon aptly didn’t see these hot takes as tough love. He followed up his warm greeting in the letter with the following, in large, bold letters: "The thing is, you don’t even know me."

He went on to explain that despite never meeting those three men outside of a television appearance, they are "curiously obsessed" with his life. Addressing Carter’s assertion that "we are dealing with addiction" in Gordon’s case, the Browns receiver issued this rebuke: "We are not dealing with anything, Cris. We are not the same. Not at all."

So who is Josh Gordon, then? The interesting thing about his statement is that he actually was more than Cris Carter earlier in his career, in terms of his on-field talent. His second NFL season, 2013, gave the whiff of a legend in the making. He scored nine touchdowns and led the league with more than 1,600 yards receiving, all while catching passes from a collection of forgettable Browns quarterbacks. Randy Moss and Jerry Rice were the only other receivers in NFL history with more yards in their first two seasons.

The feat was even more impressive when considering Gordon had missed his first two games due to his first NFL drug suspension. With a possible year-long ban shortened to 10 games in 2014, Gordon exhibited little of his earlier magic, largely loafing through five games before the team sat him for the season finale in December for violating team rules.

I know all this not just because it’s easy to Google it, but because I was watching. I share something with the sports pundits who offer prescriptions without expertise, for I am a fan of Josh Gordon. Specifically, I am a lifelong fan of the team for which he plays. So factor that, if you will, into my disappointment with the rest of his letter.

The sub-headline of his Medium piece indicates that he indeed has a "problem," but not the one Carter, Barkley, and Smith seem to think he does. However, he never specifies what it is. Gordon engages in a festival of mea culpa throughout the rest of the letter, saying that he has failed mostly himself. But he never fully owns his transgressions, asserting that he has neither a drinking nor drug problem, despite his inability to hold back from imbibing on a flight to Vegas on January 2 knowing that it could cost him, potentially, his next NFL season and perhaps even his career.

Despite his acknowledgement of his hard-knock childhood in Houston and growing up hanging out with “the wrong kind of people,” Gordon also never says one negative word about the human secondhand smoke that are the folks with whom he still surrounds himself, despite it being known by the Browns and throughout league circles that they have been anchors on his reputation. Pairing Gordon’s propensity to test positive for marijuana with his assertion in the Medium letter that he hasn’t toked since 2012, it is a worthy question to ask exactly how that keeps happening. Gordon never makes that clear in the letter. It's obvious, though, that he still expects an apology from the pundits, closing his column with an invitation for the pundits to approach him and shake his hand. “I won’t be holding a grudge,” he writes, “but I will expect you to admit you were wrong about me."

Whether or not that’s true isn’t solved by what Gordon wrote, but what is empirical is that he has the right to screw up. Every 23-year-old does, whether or not the stakes play out on national sports pages and networks. He also has the right to be a part of conversations about him.

Smith seems resigned to his hot take. Responding to the letter on air the day after the letter was published, he again trashed the young receiver. “This boy is a fool,” he said, adding that he was “incredibly sad for Josh Gordon.” He also questioned whether or not Gordon even wrote the letter.

Smith, as is his wont, has completely missed the point. Gordon expressed in his letter the desire not simply to be seen, but to be known. But do we need to know him in order to express concern for his well-being? It’s a larger question that should be asked not just about Josh Gordon, but also about those black men, women, and children whose lives are relegated to statistics and causes célèbre.

To counter the media narrative that portrays the worst version of him without his input, Gordon invites us into his past in order to show us what he feels is his best possible version, a redeemable character. Given that he stepped well over the line into disingenuousness, who is the real Josh Gordon who exists in the middle of these misbegotten public characterizations? We all should be curious to see that guy.