My brother is entering his seventh year of sobriety. He gave me his year-one-sober chip, and I carry it with me in my wallet, with pride.
Addiction is something whose power you’ll never understand if you have never personally experienced it. When I saw ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith go on one of his infamous rants, this time on the suspension of Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon, I was enraged. When I saw Sage Steele double down the next day with the additional information that both she and Smith “have firsthand, heartbreaking knowledge of the devastation of addiction” I was disappointed.
Let’s make something clear: Nobody knows the extent of Gordon’s addiction issues or his journey to recovery except Gordon. That is his story. It belongs to him. So when powerful media personalities like Smith chastise Gordon and opine about how to handle addiction, all they’re doing is propping up stigmas that follow anyone fighting addiction and dealing with mental health.
In a one-minute segment, Smith claims not to know if addiction is actually a disease, while seamlessly devaluing the struggles of anyone fighting addiction (and also contradicting himself) by claiming “this isn’t cancer, this isn’t Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or something like that.”
It’s performance art at its finest. All that narrative does is further promote the notion that addiction doesn’t need treatment—that it’s simply a personal failing.
Smith’s takes on addiction are nothing I haven’t heard throughout my brother’s journey. They are prevalent in communities of color. “You can’t get addicted to something you never tried,” Smith says, as if he holds the one answer to such a complex issue.
“He should just stop drinking,” one Indian auntie offered up to my father, talking unprompted about my brother. Years later I still seethe when I cross paths with her.
My brother hasn’t touched a drink in almost seven years. He has no problem with being around alcohol. He tells me it’s because alcohol was just a symptom of something bigger. He took personal responsibility—there is no doubt about that. It’s why he is one of my personal heroes, and why I carry his chip with me wherever I go. But he also has the support of family and real friends who took the time to understand his afflictions. This wasn’t immediate, especially considering we are first-generation Americans. Studies have shown that mental illness stigma is often greater among minority populations, and these groups are less likely to receive mental health care.
Josh Gordon is taking the time he needs to work through his demons. It’s not the first time, and it might not be the last time. And that’s OK. SI’s Ben Baskin spoke with Gordon last year and chronicled his ups and downs. It’s not a pretty story, and clearly there is no happy ending yet, no year-one-sober chip. Gordon’s story does, however, tell anyone who is suffering from addiction that they’re not alone, and hopefully mitigates some of the shame that surrounds them. Smith’s comments do just the opposite. They may keep the next little brother from getting the help he needs.
Priya Desai is a reporter who focuses on the intersection of sports, race and culture.
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