Wednesday, March 4, 2015

By MLB's Own Rules, Suspending Josh Hamilton Is an Abuse of Power

The Angels' Josh Hamilton recently had a well-publicized relapse with drugs and alcohol. Late Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Times reported that an MLB panel was deadlocked on what to do about it—and that a suspension of up to one year was on the table. A one-year suspension would represent the punishment for a fourth failure to comply with a drug treatment program.

It's pretty weak—and makes MLB look vindictive—to levy such a harsh sentence on a drug addict who needs help more than anything. But it's also a pretty clear abuse of power by MLB, according to MLB's own Joint Drug Agreement (JDA). Here's what the JDA says about drugs of abuse:
A Player found to have used or possessed a Drug of Abuse through a positive test result or otherwise, or who is suspected of having done so, will be referred to the Treatment Board for an Initial Evaluation (the “Initial Evaluation”). ...

After concluding the Initial Evaluation, and consulting with the other Treatment Board members, the Medical Representatives shall determine whether the Player should be placed on a Treatment Program, and, if so, the type of Treatment Program that, in the opinion of the Treatment Board, would be most effective. ...

The Treatment Program may include any or all of the following: counseling, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment and follow-up testing.

The Treatment Program must be in writing and signed by the Player.
This is the first thing that's supposed to happen when any player tests positive for a drug of abuse. It's the reason that you might hear that there is no punishment for a player's first offense for hard drugs; MLB's sole interest is supposed to be helping them set up a treatment program to get better. It's actually a very progressive policy.

Things take a darker turn if the player flunks another drug test:
The Treatment Board will determine whether a Player has failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation or has failed to comply with his Treatment Program.

If the Treatment Board fails to reach a majority vote on whether a Player has failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation, or has failed to comply with his Treatment Program, the Fifth Member shall cast the deciding vote. ...

The Treatment Board, including the Fifth Member when necessary, will make its determination whether a Player has failed to cooperate with an Initial Evaluation, or comply with a Treatment Program, by applying the following criteria:

(a) A Player who refuses to submit to an Initial Evaluation...
(b) A Player who consistently fails to participate in mandatory sessions with his assigned health care professional...
(c) his assigned health care professional informs the Treatment Board in a status report that the Player is not cooperating with the requirements of his Treatment Program. ...
(d) If a Player tests positive for a Drug of Abuse after his evaluation by the Treatment Board and written commitment to a Treatment Program (excluding residual positives), the Player shall have the burden of convincing the Treatment Board (including any Fifth Member) that the positive test result did not result from a lack of commitment by the Player to his Treatment Program. In determining whether the Player has met his burden, the Treatment Board shall consider, among other things: (a) the Player’s history of positive test results; (b) the evaluation of the Player’s treating professional; and (c) the Player’s willingness to consider other treatment options such as in-patient therapy.
The Treatment Board is the four-person panel cited by the LA Times as currently deadlocked; they'll have to bring in the "Fifth Member" (a.k.a. an arbitrator) to break the tie. Their decision will decide whether, in MLB's eyes, Hamilton failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation or to comply with his Treatment Program. If so, he'd be subject to suspension:
If the Treatment Board determines that a Player refused to submit to an Initial Evaluation, or refused to participate in mandatory sessions with his assigned health professional, the Player will be subject to discipline for just cause by the Commissioner without regard to the progressive discipline schedule set forth below. For all other violations, the Player will be subject to the following discipline schedule:

1. First failure to comply: At least a 15-game but not more than a 25-game suspension;
2. Second failure to comply: At least a 25-game but not more than a 50-game suspension;
3. Third failure to comply: At least a 50-game but not more than a 75-game suspension;
4. Fourth failure to comply: At least a one-year suspension; and
5. Any subsequent failure to comply by a Player shall result in the Commissioner imposing further discipline on the Player.
Here's the problem for MLB. Importantly, as the JDA stated earlier, there must be a written Treatment Program, signed and agreed to by Hamilton himself, if Hamilton can be said to have violated it. Although I have no inside knowledge of MLB or this case, I find it unlikely that Hamilton has a formal Treatment Program, as this is his first offense under this JDA. (The JDA was agreed to in 2006, while Hamilton's previous suspensions for drug use were in the minor leagues from 2004 to 2006.) It makes far more sense to treat this as Hamilton's first offense—making it time not for a suspension, but for an Initial Evaluation and, hopefully, an effective Treatment Program.

Conceivably, the Treatment Board could agree but find that he refused to submit to an Initial Evaluation—a charge that would allow Commissioner Rob Manfred to set whatever punishment he wanted. However, this too seems extremely unlikely. Hamilton's fight against addiction is extremely high-profile, and he has appeared to make every effort to quit his deadly habits for the benefit of his religion and his family (two things that are very important to him if his public statements are to be believed). I highly doubt he'd resist any Treatment Program that could help him keep his life together.

Bottom line: the Treatment Board is given broad discretion to create—or, in the event one already exists, alter and strengthen—a Treatment Program for suffering players, including rehab. The criteria the board is supposed to consider for suspensions even specifically says that they should consider the player's willingness to go to rehab before they pass judgment. This seems like a much more reasonable step to take rather than impose a harsh suspension.

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