Major League Baseball has an opioid problem. Now what?

Craig Calcaterra

Earlier today it was reported that Eric Kay, the Los Angeles Angels’ Director of Communications, knew that Tyler Skaggs was an Oxycontin addict and, in fact, purchased opioids for Skaggs and used them with him on multiple occasions. He further alleges — though the Angels dispute it — that he told other high-ranking Angels employees about Skaggs’ opioid abuse. He also claims that at least five other Angels players currently abuse opioids. All of these allegations were made in questioning of Kay by Drug Enforcement Administration agents investigating Skaggs’ death.

The immediate consequences of this, after the shock subsides, will no doubt be legal and financial ones.

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Kay says he did not supply the drugs that killed Skaggs. If he did, he could be in major legal trouble. Even if he did not, there could be any number of miscellaneous criminal charges lodged against him depending what he has admitted to. Other figures in Skaggs’ life and final hours will also, in all likelihood, be identified soon and they may face legal jeopardy as well. A man died. A famous one, and nothing gets law enforcement to move more quickly and decisively than a famous person dying.

The Skaggs family has claimed from the start that an Angels employee supplied their son with drugs — that much now seems to be confirmed — and believes that the Angels did not do what they could to help him combat his addiction. To that end they have hired high-powered attorney Rusty Hardin who will either file a lawsuit against the Angels or get them to agree to a very large settlement to avoid one. That’s what he does.

And, at least from what can be seen at this early stage, I’d say he has a fairly decent leg to stand on.

Per baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement, opioids are classified as a “Drug of Abuse.” Baseball doesn’t test major leaguers for them, but there is an affirmative reporting requirement on the part of clubs if they become aware of that a player is using a the substances listed as drugs of abuse. The point of that is not to discipline addicts. It’s about getting a player who is abusing these drugs treatment. There is actually something called the “Treatment Board” under the JDA which helps the player get into a program to deal with abuse and addiction. There are medical professionals involved to help tailor programs for addicted players. If they fail in their program they re-jigger the program and try again. Only if the player becomes unwilling or, at long last, unable to help himself will baseball look to suspend a guy. The whole point is to help.

If what Kay is saying it true, however, he — and, allegedly at least, others with the Angels — practically foreclosed that option for Skaggs. They failed an addicted employee when there was a road map for how to specifically avoid that. You can bet everything you have that, if it comes to a lawsuit, Rusty Hardin will be banging his fist on a table and loudly and forcefully telling a jury that if high-ranking Angels employees had fulfilled their responsibilities, Tyler Skaggs would be alive today (quick prediction: it doesn’t get that far because Arte Moreno will write a very large check to the Skaggs family to keep that from happening).

I’m less interested in all of that, however, than I am in what Major League Baseball will do in the face of what appears at the moment to have been a catastrophic and deadly failure of the very system set up to protect and help players in Skaggs’ shoes.

There’s a basic problem in the first instance: what happens to anyone with the Angels who, when this is all said and done, is found to have known about Skaggs’ drug abuse but did not come forward? Will executives be penalized? Suspended? Fired? How about teammates? Will the Angels as an organization be subject to sanction of some kind? I have no idea and cannot immediately see from where in the Joint Drug Agreement such discipline would flow, but Rob Manfred has enormous power, particularly over club officials and employees, so it’s a question worth asking.

But there’s a broader problem here: is it not starting to look like Major League Baseball has a major, major problem with opioid addiction?

One player is dead. A team employee — also an addict — was involved in the player’s drug acquisition and use. And not just some rogue outside trainer or a guy who wears a mascot costume. It was a long-standing and high-ranking front office employee. And that’s before you get to the part where, if he is to be believed, a full 20% of the Angels’ big league roster abuses opioids as well.

Which is to say that Major League Baseball, in all likelihood, does have a major, major problem with opioid addiction. It seems logical that it would extend beyond the Angels, at least. From gambling and throwing games in the early days of the game to alcohol addiction during its alleged “Golden Age” to cocaine in the 1970s and 80s and on to PEDs in the 90s and early 2000s, vice and/or addiction in Major League Baseball always — always — extends to more than one club. Players on other teams are rivals but they’re also friends, interact and socialize both during and after the season. They all face the same pressures and temptations and are thus all subject to the same addictions. And that’s before you acknowledge — which we must — that the opioid epidemic our nation has seen over the past decade respects few if any social, cultural, or economic boundaries. If five guys on a team are using, you can bet there are many more on other teams as well.

So what does Major League Baseball do about it?

On one level that’s an impossible and even unfair question to ask. What does anyone do to keep people from falling prey to opioid addiction? Governments and courts and families and schools and workplaces have struggled with that question for years and, short of finally starting to at least consider holding those who have filled out society up with these monstrous drugs legally and morally responsible, no one has come up with great answers. If, as I suspect, Major League Baseball does have a big opioid problem, I don’t envy anyone there who is tasked with trying to address it. It’s the greatest public health monster our nation has faced in at least a generation.

But I do know what it should not do. It should not dust off the playbook it used in the 1980s with cocaine and in the 2000s with PEDs. It should not make identifying and singling out the players who are using for shame and scrutiny the alpha and omega of its response.

In Pittsburgh, in the 80s, a number of players were paraded through courtrooms and on the evening news and were made the faces of baseball’s cocaine problem. Two years later, the Commissioner of Baseball laughably and cynically declared that “drugs are over in baseball.” The league got its perp walks and public shamings, the public was convinced that it was all a matter of arrogant, overpaid ballplayers simply looking for a greater high, and then everyone washed their hands of the matter.

As I’ve written in this space on a number of occasions, baseball’s response to the PED epidemic was similar. Rather than examine the problem, seek out its root causes — including how clubs encouraged and accepted it — and try to figure out the most effective way to stop it, they simply named a couple hundred names, let the players wear the shame, and declared victory. Bud Selig was not as foolish about declaring victory over PED use the way Peter Ueberroth did with coke, but everything he’s said and done on the matter since the day after the Mitchell Report came out has been accompanied by an implicit claim that he solved the PED scourge by punishing those evil players.

Which brings us back the Angels and opioids.

If what I suspect to be true is, in fact, true, Major League Baseball has an extraordinarily difficult problem on its hands. I have no idea how one goes about solving  that problem, but I do know that if the league’s stab at it involves making a point to name those other five Angels players Kay mentioned to the DEA or if it involves casting them or other addicted players around the league as villains or poster children, it’ll be the wrong move. Wrong in an absolute sense in that it would work to blame addicts in ways that, I would hope, we’re all smarter about now than the way we used to be. But it would also be wrong because, in the end, it will do nothing to combat a problem that is not only serious, but deadly.

It’s your move, Major League Baseball. Think carefully before you make it.

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