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Away from the field, troubling times for Bills

Rex Ryan was right on the money with at least one observation in the first installment of his regular-season Wednesday media day press conferences:

“We’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Ryan said.

Ryan was referring to his team’s widening puddle of off-field problems, though he might have been characterizing the organization’s 16-year trail of dysfunction.

The chronicle of indiscretion does strain the imagination. What an offseason it has been, going back to LeSean McCoy’s dustup with the Philly cops in early February.

Karlos Williams gets cut after being slammed with a four-game suspension for smoking marijuana. Marcell Dareus receives his own four-game ban and announces he is checking into a rehab center. Last week, veteran linebacker Manny Lawson, expected to start, gets his walking papers while under investigation by the NFL for domestic violence.

On Wednesday, during Ryan’s presser, word arrives from our Tim Graham that Dareus actually was not in a rehab facility. He’s being treated locally while working out with the team and going to meetings. What sort of meetings, I have no idea.

Earlier in the day had come the news that backup offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson had been suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Multiple reports said Henderson had been using marijuana to treat his Crohn’s disease, a condition of the digestive tract that has afflicted him since late in the 2015 season.

A player has to violate the NFL’s substance abuse policy four times to earn a four-game suspension. That means the Bills had three players who were four-time losers. Whatever you think of the NFL’s heavy-handed stance on pot, that’s a troubling trifecta.

Granted, Henderson has a long history of marijuana use, dating back to his days at the University of Miami. He went there as the top prospect in the country and left with a reputation as a party animal who didn’t take football seriously. He failed multiple tests for marijuana use while at Miami and missed several games.

Henderson tested positive for marijuana at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, which caused most teams to downgrade him to a late pick or remove him from their draft boards altogether. His draft profile said he had “suspect maturity, dependability and decision-making.”

At Doug Marrone’s insistence, the Bills grabbed him in the seventh round of the 2014 draft.

The Bills have appealed Henderson’s suspension. Four strikes is tough to dispute. But the fact that Henderson suffers from Crohn’s disease should cause the league to show some mercy in his case. Studies show that marijuana can alleviate the symptoms of Crohn’s, which include abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and inflammation.

Henderson was diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel disease late last year, and has since had two operations on his intestines. In January, doctors removed a section of diseased tissue. In April, he had his intestine surgically reattached. He returned to the Bills recently and was optimistic about the upcoming season.

Presumably, the Bills are appealing for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) under the league’s drug policy. A TUE can be granted if the athlete requires a “prohibited substance to treat an appropriately diagnosed medical problem.”

The problem is, the league’s policy specifically states that an applicant may not begin use of the prohibited substance until after the TUE is granted. So the chances of the league granting Henderson an exemption seem remote, especially when you consider his established trail of pot use before he was diagnosed with Crohn’s.

The question is, why weren’t the Bills more proactive on Henderson after his surgeries? If they had learned he was using marijuana to treat his symptoms, they could have applied for a TUE. But during the offseason, Henderson’s agent said the Bills had made no attempt to contact his client.

Ryan was reluctant to talk about Henderson during the offseason. He wanted no part of the subject Wednesday, either, calling it a “league disciplinary issue” and directing reporters to contact the league for further comment. You wonder if it might have been different if this had been a star player – Dareus, for example.

The NFL should show a conscience and reduce Henderson’s suspension to two games. But it’s unlikely, considering his past indiscretions and the belated appeal. The league doesn’t seem inclined to bend on its antiquated marijuana policy.

The drug is now legal in Colorado and Washington. Medical marijuana is legal in more than 30 states. Times are changing. But Roger Goodell’s league continues to treat marijuana like the evil weed, while painkillers are dispensed to players like Jolly Ranchers.

Many NFL players, past and present, use marijuana to treat pain. Studies suggest that a cannabis extract helps treat the symptoms of concussions. That ought to be a greater concern to Roger Goodell than whether players smoke a joint to wind down from a brutal Sunday football game. The NFL harms its own brand with this punitive policy.

The NFL Players Association needs to make a stand. The union has a reputation for being soft, and it looks weak on the pot issue. If it’s true that half the players use pot, many for pain relief, the union has to take a stand. They can’t allow Goodell to continue his ill-advised crusade against a drug that’s being legalized in many quarters and is far less damaging than opioids or alcohol.

In May, NFL guard Eugene Monroe became the first NFL player to urge the league to allow players to use medical marijuana to treat pain, arguing that it would limit the use of addictive opioids. The Ravens released Monroe in June and he retired soon after at 29.

Monroe decided to quit while he still had his health. He promised to continue speaking out on the issue. Maybe the Henderson case can be a turning point. The NFL is getting younger and league executives say the product is suffering as a result. A more evolved stance on treating pain might keep more players from retiring at a young age.

In the meantime, the Bills will continue to run a loose ship, with Ryan at the helm, and employ players who live on the edge. Fair or not, there are consequences in today’s NFL, and an imperfect organization will simply have to live with them.


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