Professional sports leagues have long substituted as moral compasses for the nation. Generation after generation have taught many important life lessons through athletics. Recently, Major League Baseball has stepped up to the plate with a groundbreaking announcement that serves to addressing a broader and crippling crisis.
In December of 2019, MLB and its players union declared that professional baseball has removed marijuana from the list of banned substances. Essentially, this fresh mandate treats marijuana in a similar fashion to alcohol. Therefore, only behaviors resulting from these substances’ abuse will merit punishment from the league. Further, the sport’s governing body will no longer test players for organic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound native to the marijuana plant.
On the front face, the news is positive for both state-sanctioned marijuana dispensaries and THC-free cannabidiol (CBD) retailers like Nug Republic. As other professional athletes, such as two-times Masters champion Bubba Watson can attest, CBD in various forms can provide holistic benefits without the acute side effects of pharmaceutical concoctions.
Interestingly, though, what remains on the table of controlled substances is synthetic THC, along with the usual suspects of fentanyl and cocaine. For the former substance, MLB presumably banned it for its health risks relative to organic marijuana. Drugpolicy.org writes that synthetic THC, or more accurately, synthetic cannabinoids:
…are generally more harmful than plant-based marijuana. Many of the adverse reactions to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported to involve dangerous physical symptoms, whereas adverse reactions to natural marijuana typically involve symptoms resembling anxiety and panic, which though worrisome, are not lethal.
If the sport’s governing body finds a player violating these banned-substances rules, the enforcement agency will refer him first to treatment and then later, impose disciplinary action. In a statement, MLB declared:
In agreeing to these modifications to the Program, MLB and the MLBPA continue to favor a treatment-based approach to Drugs of Abuse, with a particular emphasis on protecting Players from lethal and addictive substances, and providing effective and confidential care and support to Players who need it.
Further, players and team staff must attend league-wide mandatory educational programs in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, with the main emphasis on warning about the severe health risks of opioid pain medications, as well as practical applications of marijuana.
Again, in a sport that serves as the moral compass of America, this facilitation – some might say acquiescence – is at first alarming for many. But context matters. With MLB’s new substance policy, it’s not just about “getting with the times.” Rather, it’s primarily to prevent tragedies that clouded the 2019 season.
Major League Tragedy
Cutting a tall and lanky figure with a boyish grin implying both affability and mischievousness, Tyler Skaggs was an instant hit with the Los Angeles Angels’ clubhouse. Nicknamed Skaggy by his teammates, where Skaggs really shined, though, was on the mound.
A southpaw pitcher, he gave fits to some of the best batters in baseball, many of whom swing as lefties. Although not the fastest hurler in the league, Skaggs confounded opposing hitters with a combination of four-seam fastball, a curveball that slows to between 72 miles per hour to 76 mph, and a change-up (which he frequently used against right-handed batters, coming in between 78 mph to 81 mph).
While his win-loss record may not reflect his greatness, Skaggs was truly coming into his own. The Angels ballclub – long considered by many fans to be a cursed team, in part because its stadium is built, according to local legend, on an indigenous burial ground – historically has never provided much supporting firepower.
That dynamic changed in 2018, with the arrival of Shohei Ohtani – Japan’s Babe Ruth – to the club. Along with the incomparable Mike Trout – who analysts regard as the best player in baseball – the Angels finally appeared contenders. Subsequently, 2018 was Skaggs’ best season in terms of ERA and overall wins.
Moreover, Skaggs was building off this momentum in 2019. Halfway into the season, he had already accumulated seven wins. That put him one short of his personal season best, a record he would have surely beat, and probably by a country mile.
Unfortunately, the sport that Skaggs loved so much would never be able to witness and share in that victory. On July 1, 2019, Angels staff found their burgeoning star pitcher unresponsive in his hotel room in Southlake, Texas. At the time, the Angels were in town to play a four-game series against the Texas Rangers.
Fittingly, Skaggs was on the schedule to pitch the finale on the Fourth of July.
At first, an uneasy silence surrounded the shocking death. A beloved teammate and a respected player among his rivals, Skaggs never once gave any indication of trouble. Born in the upper-class Los Angeles neighborhood of Woodland Hills, he had everything going for him. At the end of the 2018 season, Skaggs married his wife Carli. Of Mexican descent through his mother’s side, the pitcher also had plans to represent Mexico in the next World Baseball Classic.
Lacking a plausible explanation – Skaggs wasn’t suicidal nor was he a victim of direct homicide – speculation began to trickle, then pour. Finally, the truth came out.
A Shocking Revelation
After weeks of hearsay and conjecture, the Los Angeles Angels announced that Tyler Skaggs died due to overdosing on the painkillers fentanyl and oxycodone, in combination with alcohol consumption. Specifically, a medical examiner declared that the pitcher died due to “terminal aspiration of gastric contents.”
In other words, he choked to death on his own vomit. Skaggs was only 27 at the time.
But unlike so many Americans who suffer from the country’s raging opioid epidemic, Skaggs’ family indicated that this was not a personal, isolated tragedy. Instead, they insinuated negligence and possible criminal action on the part of an Angels’ employee. In a statement following the autopsy report, the family noted:
We are heartbroken to learn that the passing of our beloved Tyler was the result of a combination of dangerous drugs and alcohol. That is completely out of character for someone who worked so hard to become a Major League baseball player and had a very promising future in the game he loved so much,” the family said. “ … We will not rest until we learn the truth about how Tyler came into possession of these narcotics, including who supplied them. To that end, we have hired Texas attorney Rusty Hardin to assist us.
Hardin is a well-known attorney within MLB circles. He previously represented Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens. For the Skaggs case, Hardin emphasized that the family simply wanted to know the full facts surrounding the popular athlete’s death.
Given the litigious nature of modern society, several fans expressed their skepticism of the potential legal action on social media and internet forums. However, as the official investigation went under way, it uncovered an ugly underbelly that afflicted the Angels, and quite possibly other teams throughout the league.
In a damning report by Sports Illustrated published on October 13, 2019, journalist Michael McCann suggested that an investigative report may lead to criminal charges and civil litigations against certain Angels employees. McCann wrote:
The report, authored by T.J. Quinn and published by ESPN’s Outside The Lines, details how federal agents initially learned from a review of Skaggs’s text messages that he regularly interacted with another Angels employee, director of communications Eric Kay, about obtaining oxycodone. Kay, according to Outside the Lines, admitted to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that he routinely provided Skaggs with oxycodone in recent years and abused it with him. Kay is a familiar figure to the Angels. He has worked for the team since the mid-1990s. As detailed below, Kay also claimed that he had informed two Angeles executives about Skaggs’s drug problem and that five other players used opiates while on the Angels.
Although a full analysis on the events leading to Skaggs’ death is beyond the scope of this article, what the report and witnesses to the case allege is that Skaggs was deeply addicted to opioids. According to one witness, the pitcher would badger his drug-connected contacts to get him his fix.
Adding to this troubling situation, as McCann points out, some Angels executives may have known about their pitcher’s opioid addiction. Of course, the Angels management team categorically deny that they had prior knowledge. If they did, that could quite simply ruin baseball.
Marijuana Legalization the “Lesser of Two Evils”
One of the driving principles behind marijuana advocacy is that its underlying therapies are derived naturally. Unlike pharmaceutical concoctions that are manufactured in a clinical, laboratory setting, marijuana occurs in the open environment.
Indeed, marijuana has a long and storied history. According to MedicalCannabis.com, “Five thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor named Shen Nung prescribed cannabis for beriberi, malaria, rheumatism, constipation, absent-mindedness, and menstrual cramps.”
Further, “In ancient India, cannabis was valued as a way to lower fevers and relieve dysentery. The drug was seen by some as a gift from the Gods.” And in the years following the life of Christ, “In his influential book Materia Medica, published in 70 A.D., Roman physician Pedacius Dioscorides recommended cannabis to treat earache and diminished sexual desire.”
Today, medical professionals deem that the mechanisms surrounding the cannabis plant’s efficacy in addressing certain conditions are not well understood. This is somewhat of a misleading statement. Perhaps the complete mechanisms may not be known, but cannabis has roots extending deep into recorded history.
We should also note that many pharmaceutical formulations fail to meet the standard of full efficacy and mechanical knowledge. Yet that alone doesn’t stop the Food and Drug Administration from greenlighting these drugs, so long as they meet minimum efficacy requirements.
With MLB removing marijuana from its banned substances list, it initially appears that baseball’s governing agency recognizes the maligned plant’s natural origins and therefore, its relatively side-effect free profile. Indeed, research from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Rutgers University indicates that “chronic marijuana use” among teenage boys does not appear to be linked to serious medical problems, such as such as depression, psychotic symptoms, or asthma, in later adulthood.
However, MLB likely has a more cynical approach to its updated marijuana policy. By approving organic cannabis use, the league can help deflect attention from what could be a silent crisis in its players’ ranks.
During the DEA’s investigation into the Skaggs’ death, the federal agency interviewed several former and current Angels players according to Sports Illustrated, including “current pitchers Andrew Heaney, Noe Ramirez and Trevor Cahill, as well as former Angels pitcher Matt Harvey.” The DEA also interviewed two players whose names were not released at the time of SI’s report.
In addition to assessing possible criminal action in the Skaggs case, federal law enforcement agents wanted to know the scope and prevalence of opioid use in the Angels clubhouse. But the fear among MLB’s top ranks is probably that the crisis extends beyond one team.
After all, Skaggs didn’t spend his entire career with the Angels. Although he was drafted by the organization in the first round of the 2009 draft, he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 2010 season. Later, in the 2013-2014 offseason, the Diamondbacks traded Skaggs back to the Angels, where he pitched until his passing.
Second, this is not the first time that MLB has suffered a substance abuse problem, not by a long shot. In fact, some of the game’s greatest home run hitters have asterisks associated with their accomplishments due to credible allegations of steroid abuse.
By “legalizing” marijuana, MLB can hopefully shift the demand for painkillers to natural (i.e. non-lethal) solutions. In doing so, they can also avoid the litigation nightmare should another Tyler Skaggs tragedy surface.
Losing Control of the Narrative
The perhaps raging but silent opioid and drug abuse crisis in MLB is emblematic of a broader point in the league: MLB executives are losing control of their players and thus, the narrative of the game.
Case in point is the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox cheating scandal that has rocked the league. As you’ve undoubtedly heard, MLB investigators accuse both teams of stealing pitching signals via electronic means. Of course, stealing signs occur as a form of gamesmanship, but only within the flow and context of the game. This is why teams routinely change their signs.
But with electronic sign stealing, there’s no way for opposing teams to protect themselves against the dirty and illegal tactic. In the case of the Astros, they used their home stadium feeds to illicitly gather information about what pitch was coming, and then relayed that vital data to their batters using a cadence system via hitting a garbage can.
With the Red Sox, the scheme was similar, if not more brazen. According to USA Today’s Chris Bumbaca:
The [investigators’] report said players would wander into the unguarded replay room during regular season games to decipher opponents’ sign sequences. That information would be relayed to a runner on second base. The runner would signal to the hitter whether the incoming pitch was a fastball — right foot off the bag first — or an offspeed offering — left foot first. This system, according to The Athletic, only worked with a runner on second or sometimes first
What does this specifically have to do with MLB’s potential opioid crisis and its willingness to intentionally walk marijuana?
Both cases are shocking, contradicting the core ethos of baseball, that of being America’s pastime and a source of sportsmanship and bigger life lessons. For instance, we televise the Little League World Series. There’s really no equivalent for any other sport. And this also deeply implies that children look up to baseball players in the same way their parents did.
Imagine now that parents have far more difficult conversations with their kids, that adults often abandon the lessons they teach to pursue glory on the field and chase the almighty dollar. And the opioid addictions? That goes against every lecture disseminated by the educational industrial complex.
Further, both incidents feature acquiescence in favor of the players. With the cheating scandal, the Astros got off light. They’ll lose a few draft picks and were fined a few million dollars – a nothing amount in the world of professional sports. Sure, the managers of both the Astros and the Red Sox were fired by their respective teams. However, none of the players – the ones that were in on the scheme and benefitted from it the most – face suspension.
But the big whammy? Both teams get to keep their World Series titles. Voiding that would have sent a real message. Instead, MLB presumably didn’t want to risk offending the powerful players’ union. It may be a similar sentiment with the softening of the league’s drug policy.
All About the Benjamins
On one hand, MLB should be applauded for taking a rational, reasonable approach to their substance abuse policy. As many baseball insiders have pointed out, this update focuses on empathetic treatment, not penalties.
We already know that Prohibition doesn’t work at the governmental and societal level. Arguably, no reasons exist as to why it should work in focalized settings, such as professional sports leagues.
But when taken in a larger context, we can’t ignore the potential cynical catalysts for why MLB decided to go soft on marijuana. While opioid use is a relatively recent phenomenon, marijuana has been part of the fabric of the game for years, whether we care to admit it or not.
Thus, suspending players for marijuana use is a money-losing proposition for MLB. And you may have noticed that money is not something that the league can necessarily afford to lose. Since 2015, MLB attendance stats have steadily declined. One of the problems is that the end product isn’t all that great, especially for low-performing teams.
So, to suspend players for using a natural and comparatively harmless substance (relative to hard narcotics) is not in the books. MLB needs those star players, especially as most kids nowadays dream of becoming football stars.
Likely, it’s the reason why MLB won’t implement draconian rules, even when it’s warranted, such as the sign-stealing scandal. Be glad that the league is taking a step forward and in doing so, helping other sports follow its lead. But this is more a take on business necessity rather than true cannabis advocacy.
Image Credit: Baseball via RONORMANJR/Shutterstock