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If addiction is an illness -- and it is -- Josh Hamilton shouldn’t be suspended

josh hamilton getty

Hearing of Josh Hamilton’s relapse is heartbreaking. Whatever you think of him as a player or a person, there is no denying how far he has come and how hard he has worked to turn his life around.

Based on what’s been reported about those days, it’s amazing he didn’t die as a result of his drug use when he was a kid in the Rays’ organization. It’s even more amazing that he missed three full years of development time in the minors -- his age 22, 23 and 24 seasons -- yet still managed to come back and turn himself into one of the best players in baseball. His recovery has been astounding and inspirational.

But, as even a cursory review of addiction literature reveals, relapse is often -- very often depending on various factors related to family history, occupation, etc. -- a part of recovery. Hamilton’s has been no different. Since getting back on the baseball track in 2006-07, Hamilton has had at least two relapses that we are aware of. There may have been more. Take away his money and his fame, and his story is, I suspect, like that of a lot of addicts.

Hamilton’s future is now uncertain. Jon Heyman reported last night that some are speculating Hamilton will be put into a rehab program. Initial reports yesterday, however, suggested that Hamilton was in New York for “a disciplinary matter” and a good amount of conversation ensued regarding what sort of “suspension” Hamilton may get and how the Angels will not have to pay Hamilton while he is “suspended.”

We don’t yet know what Major League Baseball will do with Hamilton. I do hope, however, that whatever happens with him, it is not couched in disciplinary terms and is not treated like a suspension as we have come to know them (i.e. exile from team functions, forfeiture of salary, requirement of remediation/apology/etc.). My knowledge and experience with addiction is pretty limited, but what I have read and what appears to be the case is that rehabilitative, as opposed to punitive measures are far more successful in limiting relapse among addicts. And what seems to be pretty clear is that talking about an addict’s relapses and the challenges he faces as if it were misbehavior, as opposed to illness, is counterproductive and potentially harmful.

Baseball’s assistance and substance abuse programs are said to be good and progressive. I trust that Hamilton will be steered into a situation that helps him get healthy again and helps him find the tools he once had at hand but has, apparently, lost and which have allowed him to overcome his addiction for so long. I do hope, however, that whatever rehabilitation and assistance he is provided is not paired with the usual trappings of punitive action. That whatever else they do to him beyond getting him into a good program does not contribute, inadvertently or otherwise, to the public’s tendency to treat addicts as miscreants or subjects to be shamed.

If that were to happen, I feel like it would be a bad message to send to baseball fans and the public at large, which is likely watching Hamilton’s struggle with addiction far more closely than it would a normal person’s struggle and thus may draw some bad overall conclusions about addiction from this episode. I also feel like it would probably be a bad thing for Josh Hamilton.

If any of you all have some experience or expertise regarding addiction, I’d ask that you weigh in in the comments. I’d be curious to hear some informed thoughts on this.