MLB in talks to implement opioid testing as early as 2020

MLB is reacting to the death of Tyler Skaggs by discussing opioid testing for all MLB ballplayers. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
MLB is reacting to the death of Tyler Skaggs by discussing opioid testing for all MLB ballplayers. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

In the wake of the death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs from a mixture of oxycodone, fentanyl, and alcohol in June, Major League Baseball is in talks with the Major League Baseball Players Association to start testing MLB ballplayers for opioids as early as the 2020 season.

“We have been in active discussions with the Players Association about changes to our joint drug program to address opioid use, and I am cautiously optimistic that we will find common ground on this very important issue,” deputy commissioner Dan Halem told The Athletic on Monday.

According to Evan Drellich of The Athletic, both parties have come to the table and are receptive to the change, a major departure from the past when MLB and the MLBPA butted heads on expanded testing for performance-enhancing drugs. There is currently no testing for opioids under the Joint Drug Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, though opioids are a banned substance.

Skaggs’ death, which devastated the Angels and all of MLB, is the impetus for this possible change. The cause of death was unknown until the end of August, when the Tarrant County (Texas) Medical Examiner announced that Skaggs had choked on his own vomit after ingesting a combination of two opioids (oxycodone and fentanyl) and alcohol. In mid-October, ESPN reported that an Angels employee, himself addicted to opioids, had sold Skaggs and several other Angels players opioids. It was also reported that several Angels employees knew about Skaggs’ addiction to opioids for months or even years, and did nothing to help him receive treatment.

While the punishment for testing positive for PEDs is an automatic suspension, Drellich reported that MLB is considering a different path for a positive opioid test. A source told him that a first positive test for opioids could result in enrollment in a treatment program instead of a suspension.

While that appears to be a positive step, it fails to consider that being publicly identified for taking PEDs is radically different than being identified as a habitual opioid user. PEDs are taken to improve performance, while opioids are taken at first to dull pain, and then because the user can’t function normally without them. Opioids are highly addictive, and while entering a ballplayer into treatment is more productive than a suspension, it identifies him as an addict to their fellow ballplayers, coaches, managers, and fans.

Beyond the damage being outed as an addict might do to ballplayers, many of whom experience constant pain due to the nature of their jobs, it doesn’t appear that MLB and the MLBPA are considering any proactive measures to ensure that MLB players don’t get addicted to opioids in the first place. The entire country is in an opioid crisis, which has taken the lives of millions of people. Now that the crisis has finally touched MLB, any response that doesn’t include proactive, preventative measures will be woefully inadequate, and could very well do more harm than good.

The policy is obviously still being talked through. And though MLB has a history of being reactive instead of proactive, hopefully MLB and the MLBPA will consult with non-baseball experts in the field of opioid addiction to implement a rule that puts the health and well-being of the ballplayer first, instead of singling him out for punishment.

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