By Danny O’Neil
Sometimes there’s no need for analysis or interpretation.
Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Or grit your teeth. Or grunt in exasperation.
All three of those responses would be understandable, even appropriate, when it comes to the looming suspension of cornerback Walter Thurmond.
Not just because he plays a position where the Seahawks are already missing starter Brandon Browner, and not just because it mirrors the situation Seattle faced a year ago right down to the timing of the report. What makes this so very maddening is just how avoidable this was, because if Thurmond is going to be suspended under the NFL’s policy regarding substances of abuse as the league’s own TV network reported, well, then it almost certainly wasn’t his first slip-up. But we’ll get to the specifics of league protocol in a second.
Right now, there’s not all that much to say. At least not for the Seahawks. The team is forbidden from discussing the issue by the collective-bargaining agreement, which threatens a fine of $500,000. So coach Pete Carroll will say he can’t discuss it, the team will prep Byron Maxwell to step into the starting role outside with Jeremy Lane as the nickelback and perhaps reach out to Antoine Winfield, who was let go at the end of training camp.
So we’re left to wrestle with Thurmond’s situation, a reminder of how much the trajectory of an NFL season can fluctuate based on the judgment of men in their 20s, or more accurately, the lack of judgment. But before you go comparing Thurmond’s situation with the four-game suspensions of Browner and Bruce Irvin, not to mention the one against Richard Sherman that was overturned on appeal, it’s important to note a critical difference.
Those suspensions were levied under the policy against performance-enhancing substances, a program that stipulates a four-game suspension for a first violation.
Thurmond, according to the NFL Network, will be suspended under the league’s substance-abuse policy, which is entirely different. The details are important because a positive test for substances of abuse doesn’t call for a suspension. Instead, the first offense puts a player into the league’s substance-abuse program.
Once in the program, the player is subjected to as many as eight random urine tests a month, and he must notify the league before he leaves town and provide an address of where he’s going and must be available to provide a urine sample within four hours of being notified.
The scrutiny – and the stakes – could not be any clearer for the player. Once in the program, there’s no margin for error, and the fact four-game suspensions for substance abuse are rarer than they are for PEDs speaks to the effectiveness of the program.
It is also the reason that Thurmond’s suspension – if accurate – is nothing short of shocking. After three seasons overshadowed by injuries, Thurmond was just this year coming into his own. In training camp, he beat out Winfield for the job as Seattle’s third cornerback. He started the first two regular-season games when Browner was out with a hamstring injury, and Thurmond is the reason that Browner’s potentially season-ending groin injury wasn’t inspiring hand wringing.
Last week, Thurmond returned an interception for the first touchdown of his NFL career, and now he may miss most of the final month of this season because of a mistake. Well, probably more than one.
This wasn’t about the culture of Seattle’s team or its leadership or the lack of understanding about NFL rules. The nature of the league’s substance-abuse program makes it certain that Thurmond had ample warning and understanding.
And at this point, there’s nothing left to say. You just shake your head. Or grit your teeth. Or grunt. This is a mistake that’s tougher to understand than it is to explain.