Cleveland Browns Inner Circle pioneered drugs, alcohol treatment

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 28: Antonio Callaway #11 of the Cleveland Browns runs up field after a catch during the first quarter in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 28: Antonio Callaway #11 of the Cleveland Browns runs up field after a catch during the first quarter in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns created the Inner Circle, a widely praised plan for drugs and alcohol addiction, though the path forward has had some missteps.

The Cleveland Browns were one of the first teams to implement a plan to treat players for drug and alcohol addiction, creating a program known informally as the Inner Circle, though the path to 2019 has had some missteps along the way.

Circa 1980, when Sam Rutigliano became coach of the Browns, the rehabilitation plan was basically the coach or GM cussing out the troubled player, threatening him with being cut from the team and issuing ultimatums. Needless to say, the “get tough” attitude might make management feel better, but it hardly ever worked.

Rutigliano was motivated to create a better approach because one of his players confessed that he was contemplating suicide as a means of dealing with his addiction problem. The life-or-death seriousness of the situation caused the coach to enlist the help of Dr. Gregory Collins of the Cleveland Clinic. Together they established the framework of a comprehensive program and support system dubbed as the Inner Circle.

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The human brain is not that much different than a knee. Yes, sometimes knee injuries go away by themselves, but you are way better off treating knee injuries with highly paid professionals to make the diagnosis, carry out the treatment and supervise the rehabilitation process. Addiction and substance abuse are also like that, although the brain is even harder to treat because it fights back and has the delusion that it is completely well.

Thus, the battle against alcohol, drug and substance abuse had to include trained professional medical specialists, psychologists and psychiatrists, counselors, and spiritual advisers. It also required the team to write some hefty checks to support it. The Inner Circle was insulated from the rest of the team by using a few key players as go-betweens (initially Calvin Hill and Paul Warfield, two of the most respected players on the team). That way not even Browns players knew who was in the Inner Circle.

According to a press release on the occasion of Rutigliano’s speech at Commencement at Lakewood Community College, approximately a dozen players were part of the program at one point. If you think about the possibility of a dozen players not reaching their potential as football players or human beings, that defines a crisis.

The Brown’s Inner Circle was extremely successful, highly praised and was soon copied by the rest of the NFL. Every one of the players beat their addiction. Probably the Inner Circle was the coach’s greatest achievement. It became the model for the rest of the NFL. In 2007 the coach was honored with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies’ Bronze Key Award.  Thus the Browns have much to be proud of.

However, the original program was created with the help of the Cleveland Clinic. The Browns elected to discontinue their relationship with the Cleveland Clinic in 2015, and are now served by University Hospitals. What then is the current treatment program for Browns players?

Certainly, University Hospitals has world-class services for substance abuse as well as any number of premier counseling. No one can question the overall reputation of either medical organization. However, less information is available about whether or not anything has been done to create targeted programs specifically for the Browns or other pro athletes regarding substance abuse issues.

Dawg Pound Daily asked the Browns publicity office whether there are internet resources describing the current rehab and treatment programs used by the team, but thus far there has been no response. That doesn’t mean that anything is amiss, but makes it hard for your humble correspondent to heap praise upon what they are doing.

The Cleveland Indians continue to use the Cleveland Clinic, as do the Cavaliers.

Obviously, the Browns continue to have an ongoing rehabilitation program, which is known to have been used by Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon as two of its better-known clients, though not necessarily the most successful. While not delving into the specifics, the handling of Manziel was proof positive that at the highest levels the team was not prepared to deal with his dependency issues.

They not only failed to punish him when he transgressed, but upper management also rewarded him by pushing him to the starting lineup without making him earn his opportunity,  and they attempted to cover up his lapses. The Ray Farmer era might have marked the low point, as the hapless Browns managed to draft two players in the first round — Manziel and Justin Gilbert —who were busts, both of whom wound up in trouble for substance abuse with the Browns appearing to be the last to know about the problems.

These affairs were closed by the time John Dorsey became the Browns general manager. He inherited Josh Gordon, the unofficial NFL record holder for suspensions, and holdover from the Tom Heckert days. Gordon actually made it back to the Browns active roster in 2018, signifying that the rehabilitation effort had been successful.

However, coach Hue Jackson found it necessary to cut him loose even though he was not under a drug suspension. Jackson went ballistic after Gordon sinned by filming a commercial without appropriate permission and aggravating a hamstring in the process. But Jackson’s vocal temper tantrum made it impossible to keep Gordon and also made it more difficult to get something for him in a trade. That’s clearly on Jackson, not on Dorsey, and does not reflect negatively on the rehabilitation process.

Dorsey brought in a few players in 2018 suspected of having issues. They include Desmond Harrison (multiple suspensions in college; now gone after a dismal eight-game tenure), Antonio Callaway (college suspensions plus alleged failed drug test at the Combine),  Mychal Kendricks (alleged involvement in illegal insider training).

None of these acquisitions were expensive. Callaway was a fourth-round pick, and make a significant contribution to the team in his first year.  Nothing was lost by cutting Kendricks and Harrison. Thus overall the Browns are on the plus side of the ledger, and it could have been better had Kendricks been retained.

As far as the public has been made aware, the issue was that Kendricks lied to the team about his guilt. However, it is hard to imagine that his lawyers would advise him to admit guilt to his employer while still maintaining innocence in court. If that is the only reason Kendricks was dismissed, the Browns were naive. By the way, outsiders have no way of knowing how much of that decision was made by John Dorsey or Hue Jackson or perhaps even ownership.

Nevertheless, nothing really bad happened to the Browns for taking chances on players, and the very limited data sample is favorable, since they got Gordon back on the field, and have also done well by Callaway, the organization seems to have been able to help him as a person as well as a player. Getting a fifth-round pick for Gordon would have been considered a miracle a few years ago. So far, so good.

This year the ante has been raised considerably by the signing of Kareem Hunt, a legitimate star but with a suspension for violating the NFL conduct policy. Recently he got into some hot water allegedly involving an incident in a bar, which naturally raises the issue of whether going to bars is an acceptable part of his rehabilitation lifestyle. That issue may be more important than whether there was a tussle or not. Here again, however, it is not much of an investment by the Browns, and most of it could be recovered if it is necessary to cut him from the team. Overall there is a great potential upside.

Again, however, nothing bad happens if he is suspended by the league. Nothing bad happens if they trade him to an NFC team. However, if he is cut by the team, the next day he might sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers or another opponent, and that would be very bad.

To summarize, the Browns were way out in front of the rehabilitation process in the 1980s, founding the Inner Circle, though by the time the team drafted Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert the team seemed to have lost its way. Not very much is known about the current status of the Browns current treatment programs other than that they exist and are handled via the world-class University Hospitals system.

The early returns on the Browns ability to foster recovery among troubled players under John Dorsey are generally positive. The progress of Antonio Callaway provides hope that management and medical are back on the same page (despite unorthodox management decisions by former coach Jackson), and even Josh Gordon did not have a relapse on Dorsey’s watch.

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Dorsey is saying the right things, as reported by Nate Ulrich of the Beacon Journal. “I am willing to help a man on a second chance moving forward to be a better person, and that’s all you can ask for in society, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”