MLB and the Los Angeles Angels missed the mark with their insensitive, unhelpful and potentially dangerous comments on Josh Hamilton's drug violation and the decision not to suspend him.
On Friday morning, MLB announced that, according to an outside arbitrator, Josh Hamilton did not violate his treatment program and thus could not be suspended or otherwise disciplined for his reported cocaine-related relapse this off-season. You would think this would have come as good news to Hamilton’s team, the Angels, who are hoping to hold off the Mariners and repeat as American League West champions this season. You would be wrong.
“It defies logic that Josh’s reported behavior is not a violation of his drug program,” Angels president John Carpino told reporters in the wake of the announcement.
“The Angels have serious concerns about Josh’s conduct, health and behavior,” said general manager Jerry Dipoto earlier in the day, “and we are disappointed that he has broken an important commitment which he made to himself, his family, his teammates and our fans.”
Dipoto, who signed Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract in December 2012, went on to say that the team will “do everything possible to assure he receives proper help for himself and for the well-being of his family.” But the first half of his statement was surprisingly strong in its wording, and Carpino’s was unambiguous: The Angels appear to be seriously upset that Hamilton was not suspended.
This is shocking. The Angels signed Hamilton well aware of his dark history of drug and alcohol abuse, which nearly derailed his career a decade ago. They are also well aware of his largely successful struggle to remain sober in the intervening years, and I would hope they are aware of just how difficult that struggle is and will always be for Hamilton and others like him. The only possible reason I can think of that the Angels could be upset in the light of Friday morning’s news is that they were hoping to be relieved of some of the $84.2 million commitment they owe Hamilton over the next three seasons, but to express that frustration publicly and as plainly as Carpino did is beyond the pale.
What’s more, according to Nathaniel Grow, an assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Georgia, both Carpino and Dipoto’s statements—as well as MLB’s initial statement detailing the arbitrator’s ruling—could all be in violation of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Section 5.A.(v) of the Joint Drug Agreement explicitly lists “the decision of the Arbitration Panel” under the definition of “Confidential Information” that all involved parties, including the Commissioner’s Office, are prohibited from disclosing per section 5.B.1. What’s more, per Section 5.C.4., “If the discipline of a Player is stayed ... and the Panel determines that no discipline is appropriate ... Confidential Information ... shall also include the fact that an arbitration hearing occurred.”
Essentially, the only things that are supposed to be made public are a positive test—which Hamilton never had, since he confessed to his relapse before reporting to camp—an “investigation” on the part of MLB, and a suspension. Anything else is supposed to remain confidential. Yes, some details may leak through the press, but for MLB to issue a statement explicitly explaining that the Treatment Board was deadlocked and the decision was handed to an arbitrator who ruled in Hamilton’s favor seems to be in clear violation of the above-mentioned portions of the agreement. Curiously, MLB’s statement also explicitly states the league’s opinion “that Hamilton violated his treatment program and is subject to discipline by the Commissioner.”
What seemed Friday morning to be a positive and compassionate outcome has suddenly taken an ugly turn, with the league and Hamilton’s bosses ganging up against him. It could very well be that there is far more to this situation than we know. Perhaps Hamilton’s relapse was worse than has been reported, or there have been other incidents and issues that haven’t become public. That’s nasty speculation, but it would be the only sound explanation for such ill will on the part of the Angels and the league. Even still, if those incidents and issues are not public, statements reflecting them should not be either. And if there are no such other issues, the Angels, and Carpino in particular, should be chastised and possibly even disciplined by the league, which is hardly free of blame itself.
Perhaps most troubling in all of this is the message being sent to other players, as well as team and league employees, about how they are likely to be treated if they have their own struggles with addiction. The public face of all of this is Hamilton, a man who recovered from a crippling drug addiction to stay sober for a decade—save for two minor incidents with alcohol—then had a relapse, confessed his drug use to the league without a positive test and was found not to be in violation of his drug treatment program by an independent arbitrator. And despite all that, he was still portrayed as a violator in an official statement from the league and in comments to the press by his own team’s front office. Whether or not there is more to the story than that, this does not paint MLB as a compassionate organization to which its employees can turn for help following immediately regrettable transgressions.
As for Hamilton, he may yet wind up entering a rehab program, which would extend his absence from the coming season beyond the time needed for his surgically repaired shoulder to heal, and there are those who believe that the best thing for his sobriety would actually be a new life outside of baseball. Hamilton’s future isn’t necessarily any more clear in the wake of Friday’s decision than it was before it, but one thing is: MLB under new commissioner Rob Manfred still has an outdated and unhelpful attitude toward the illness of drug addiction.
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