Major league players are not routinely tested for opioids. Now, one week after Tyler Skaggs’ autopsy revealed the Angels pitcher had fentanyl and oxycodone in his system when he died July 1, the commissioner’s office and the players’ union are expected to discuss whether to expand the major league drug testing program to include random screenings for opioids.
“For several reasons, including the tragic loss of a member of our fraternity and other developments happening in the country as a whole, it is appropriate and important to reexamine all of our drug protocols relating to education, treatment and prevention,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., said in a statement Friday.
In the minor leagues, where players are not represented by the union, the commissioner’s office mandates testing for opioids. Of the 75,000 tests administered over the last five years, only 10 were positive for opioids, according to the league.
“We have not received from our medical community any information that would lead us to believe opioids are a widespread issue in baseball,” deputy commissioner Dan Halem said.
However, Halem said, the increasing prevalence of opioid abuse in the general population could present an opportunity for the league and the union to work together toward protecting the welfare of players.
It is unclear at this point whether the league and union would consider suspending players that might test positive for opioids, referring them to a confidential testing program, or both. In the minor leagues, players are referred to treatment after a first positive test for a drug of abuse and suspended after a second.
No drug in modern history has killed more people in a single year than fentanyl, The Times reported last week. More than 31,000 people in the United States died last year after taking fentanyl or a similar substance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An Orange County man who called himself “oxygod” was sentenced last week to 17-1/2 years in prison for selling opioid pills laced with fentanyl. Authorities found nearly 100,000 phony oxycodone pills in the man’s apartment.
Under the current major league drug policy, oxycodone and fentanyl are considered “drugs of abuse,” and players are not tested for such drugs without reasonable cause, or unless part of a treatment program. Any minor leaguer testing positive for a drug of abuse could be subject to random testing throughout his major league career, Halem said.
In the major leagues, he said, club doctors, athletic trainers and other personnel are trained to identify and report signs and symptoms of potential abuse. Opioids are tightly regulated, as federally controlled substances that require a legitimate medical prescription and carry a significant risk of abuse.
“None of our doctors prescribe opioids, other than for short-term use in connection with surgery,” Halem said.
Although players can apply for a therapeutic use exemption, or TUE, to allow for the use of an otherwise banned substance, Halem said the league has not granted any exemptions for opioids.
“There are no TUEs for long-term use of controlled substances,” Halem said. “It’s all for pain management in connection with an invasive procedure for a short duration.”
According to Skaggs’ player page on the league website, he last underwent surgery in 2014.
In a statement following the release of the autopsy results, the Skaggs family said it was “shocked” to learn that “the circumstances surrounding Tyler’s death ... may involve an employee of the Los Angeles Angels.”
The family has hired famed Texas attorney Rusty Hardin. The Angels have retained a Texas lawyer as well, and the results of several investigations could determine whether the family files a wrongful-death lawsuit that could take years — and tens of millions of dollars, or more — to resolve.
Halem said the league is deferring its investigation until the conclusion of the police investigation, in the hope that law enforcement can share its findings and thus narrow the areas the league would need to probe.
“We have not been briefed by law enforcement at this point,” Halem said.