Wednesday’s news that Josh Hamilton could be facing an imminent suspension from Major League Baseball has set off a wave of speculation regarding not only the possible cause of the suspension, but also its potential length. Given Hamilton’s history, some have assumed he may have had a relapse of his earlier substance-abuse problems, triggering a possible suspension under MLB’s Joint Drug Agreement (JDA).
Although we presently have very little concrete information regarding Hamilton’s situation, here is what we do know: Mike DiGiovanna broke the news on Wednesday afternoon that Hamilton was in New York City meeting with MLB officials regarding a potential suspension. Ken Rosenthal reported later that, according to an unnamed baseball executive, Hamilton’s transgression was “worse” than a performance enhancing drug (PED) violation.
More alleged details emerged Wednesday evening, with Jon Heyman reporting Hamilton had confessed to a drug relapse involving “at least cocaine.” Heyman went on to report that Hamilton would be placed in MLB’s drug-treatment program as a first-time violator.
Despite these reports, it’s important to remember we don’t know what, if anything, Hamilton has actually done. Many speculated last year that former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington had stepped down from his position due to a drug relapse, when in reality the decision was motivated by an entirely different set of factors.
With that said, if the initial reports prove correct, and Hamilton did in fact have a relapse of his substance abuse problems, then his punishment would be governed by MLB’s JDA. Although the JDA is most often applied in cases of alleged PED violations, it also governs the use of “drugs of abuse,” including marijuana, cocaine, LSD and heroin.
Under the JDA, the first time a player is suspected of having used a drug of abuse, he’s referred to a treatment board, which conducts an initial evaluation of the player to determine whether he’ll be placed in MLB’s drug treatment program. If the player is placed in the treatment program, the board then will devise an initial course of treatment for the player, ranging from counseling and treatment to follow-up drug testing.
Should the player fail to follow his specified treatment program, he will then be subject to punishment under Section 7.D of the JDA. That provision specifies an escalating scale of possible discipline, ranging from a 15- to 25-game suspension for the first offense to at least a season-long suspension for the fourth offense. Any subsequent offenses would be subject to a punishment determined by the commissioner. (Meanwhile, if the player were to actually be convicted of a drug offense in a court of law, then his suspension would be determined under Section 7.E of the JDA.)
In the case of Hamilton, he originally entered MLB’s drug treatment program following an initial failed drug test in spring training in 2003. He subsequently violated his treatment program four times, resulting in the imposition of a season-long suspension in 2004.
So if Hamilton suffered a recent relapse, that would be the fifth violation of his treatment program. In that case, under the JDA, he would be subject to punishment at the discretion of the commissioner. This would seem to be consistent with the reports that Hamilton was meeting with MLB officials in New York on Wednesday.
Under Section 7.D, the commissioner has the discretion to impose whatever level of punishment he feels is appropriate. The provision does suggest, though, that the “level of the discipline will be determined consistent with the concept of progressive discipline.” So in other words, the punishment for a fifth violation should be determined in light of the escalating scale laid out above, meaning a fifth offense would normally result in a suspension of at least a year, if not longer.
This makes Jon Heyman’s report that Hamilton will be treated as a first-time offender under MLB’s drug program somewhat curious. While Hamilton was in the minor leagues during his earlier transgressions back in the early-2000s, he had already been placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster by the time he failed his first drug test in 2003. (Hamilton was subsequently removed from the Rays’ 40-man roster following the year-long suspension, leading to him famously being drafted in the 2006 Rule 5 draft.)
Because Hamilton was on the 40-man roster in 2003, his earlier violations would have been subject to MLB’s drug policy, meaning any subsequent transgressions would normally be subject to the escalating scale of punishment set forth in Section 7.D. So if Hamilton did in fact recently have a relapse, it seems strange that he would now be treated as a first-time offender under the JDA, or that he would be subjected to a punishment significantly less severe than the season-long suspension he served back in 2004.
That been said, though, any discipline would come at the discretion of the commissioner. So it’s possible Rob Manfred could decide to treat a possible new violation by Hamilton more leniently than normal under the JDA. For instance, aside from a minor alcohol-related slip-up back in 2012, Hamilton appears to have avoided a drug-related relapse for nearly a decade. Hamilton has also notably traveled with an “accountability partner” for the better part of the last 10 years to help avoid possible temptations on the road, showing that he has taken his recovery seriously.
Moreover, according to Heyman, Hamilton’s most recent transgression did not involve a failed drug test, but rather was discovered when Hamilton himself brought the information to MLB’s attention. Given that information, Manfred could quite reasonably determine Hamilton deserves a lesser punishment than someone would normally receive under the JDA.
Again, though, this all assumes the initial rumors that Hamilton has had a drug relapse are correct. Should these rumors ultimately prove false, and Hamilton is in fact facing possible discipline for a non-drug-related offense, then his potential punishment would raise an entirely different host of issues under MLB’s collective bargaining agreement.
Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.