Why Major League Baseball Is Dropping the Ball When It Comes to Treating Its Alcohol Problem

MLB Players Drinking in Clubhouse
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apardavila/

by Kaitlin Shire*

Yankees manager, Joe Girardi, was not prepared for what his celebrated longtime pitcher, C.C. Sabathia wanted to discuss with him hours before the Yankees’ final game of the season.[1]  Sabathia confessed to his manager, “I need help,” explaining that he was suffering from alcoholism and was planning on entering a rehabilitation program.[2]  While Sabathia knew the Yankees were preparing to play the Houston Astros in the American League wild card game just a few days later, he explained, “I want to take control of my disease.”[3]  Following his admission, teammates spoke of winning the wild card game for him.[4]

Major League Baseball’s Dependence on Alcohol

Although Major League Baseball, through its Collective Bargaining Agreement, appears to be supportive of Sabathia’s decision, as he would have continued to receive his annual salary while he sought treatment, could the sport itself have affected Sabathia’s illness?[5]  Baseball has long held and promoted a relationship with alcohol.[6]  For many, baseball goes hand in hand with alcohol: stadiums and teams are named after beer companies; Budweiser, as the Official Beer Sponsor of Major League Baseball, is the presenting sponsor of MLB Opening Week and Player of the Month Awards, partner of MLB fancave, and presenting sponsor of the Wild Card Games.[7]  Baseball is so entwined with beer sponsorships that while Yankees’ management gave a press conference regarding Sabathia’s decision and illness, a banner filled with Budweiser logos appeared behind them.[8]  Moreover, it is not uncommon for alcohol to make its presence in team clubhouses, an uncommon occurrence in other professional sports leagues.[9]  Many players feel that a clubhouse beer after the game is part of the “‘feel of the game.’”[10]  In addition to the casual post-game drink, most baseball fans are familiar with the outrageous post-victory celebrations that frequently occur in clubhouses during the postseason.[11]  Due to cameras being allowed in the clubhouse for the party, fans get to witness players guzzling and spraying beer and champagne throughout tarp-laden clubhouses.[12]

Sadly, baseball’s relationship with alcohol is not all fun and games.[13]  The league has a long history of players dealing with alcohol abuse.[14]  Sometimes such overindulgence and illness leads to tragedy.  For instance, in 2007, Cardinals’ relief pitcher, Josh Hancock, was killed after the car he was driving slammed into a tow truck parked on the side of a highway.[15]  Hancock’s blood-alcohol level was twice the Missouri legal limit.[16]  Just hours before his death, Hancock had been drinking in the Cardinal’s clubhouse.[17]

Putting a Band-Aid on the Problem

While baseball went to great lengths to deal with the steroid problem plaguing the league, the MLB has had a much more difficult time acknowledging its problem with alcohol and implementing policies to treat it.[18]  Fortunately, the league and teams have taken some steps to address the potential issues facing players.  Following Hancock’s tragic death, many teams banned alcohol from their clubhouses.[19]  Additionally, though the league had previously not even deemed alcohol as a “drug of abuse,” the current Collective Bargaining Agreement explicitly discusses how to handle a player’s DUI arrest.[20]  If a player is arrested or charged for driving under the influence, that player will be referred to the league’s Treatment Board, which “will be responsible for creating and supervising individualized treatment programs for Players with an alcohol use problem.”[21]  The league also takes a proactive approach, requiring a player to be referred to the treatment board if he appears to be intoxicated at any of his team’s games, practices, workouts, meetings, or other instance within the scope of his employment.[22]

The league and certain teams have certainly taken steps to address the sport’s alcohol problem, yet more still needs to be done.  For instance, although the league requires a player’s referral to the Treatment Board after a DUI charge, a player’s participation in the recommended treatment program is completely voluntary.[23]  The league could take note from the NFL and its alcohol-offense policy.[24]  If a NFL player is convicted or admits to a violation of an alcohol offense, that player will receive an automatic suspension of two games.[25]  Additionally, the NFL reserves the right to conduct alcohol testing on players participating in Intervention programs and prohibits certain players from consuming the substance.[26]  Further, while the MLB focuses on educating players on the dangers of alcohol only during their minor league careers, the NFL focuses on the topic not only during its rookie education program, but also each year during team preseason meetings.[27]

Will the League Seek Further Treatment for Its Problem?

While many teams have banned alcohol from clubhouses to prevent further tragedy and/or liability from occurring, the postseason alcohol-filled victory celebrations still occur in clubhouses across the nation.[28]  Even after Sabathia made his serious and sudden announcement, the Yankees were still considering whether to have a champagne celebration should they have won their wild card game.[29]  Such a promotion of extreme alcohol consumption helps neither the fans witnessing the celebration on television nor the players thrust in the middle of it.[30]  If the league wants to avoid situations like Sabathia’s in the future, it needs to take the seriousness and potential consequences of alcohol more seriously.  Sadly, the likelihood of such a move occurring seems unlikely.[31]  The league is simply too financially dependent on beer.[32]  Without it, how can it possibly survive?[33]


 

* Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal; J.D. Candidate, May 2017, Villanova University School of Law.

[1] See Daniel Barbarisi, Yankee’s Sabathia Checks Into Rehab, Will Miss Postseason, Wall Street J. (Oct. 5, 2015, 7:44 PM ET), http://www.wsj.com/articles

/yankees-sabathia-checks-into-rehab-will-miss-postseason-1444066090.  The Yankees were in Baltimore to play the Orioles in their regular season finale.  See id. 

[2] See id.  Joe Girardi apparently did not see it coming, explaining to the media, “I know players have drinks.  Adults have drinks.  But I was not aware that it was at that level and that he felt that he needed help.”  Id.

[3] See id.  (recognizing he was leaving at a time “when we should all be coming together for one last push toward the World Series”).  In a statement released on October 5, 2015, Sabathia told the world he was checking himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center to receive treatment for his disease.  See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Ken Davidoff, What’s next for CC Sabathia, the Yankees, and MLB?, N.Y. Post (Oct. 7, 2015, 3:18 AM), http://nypost.com/2015/10/07/whats-next-for-cc-sabathia-the-yankees-and-mlb/ (describing how “Baseball’s Basic Agreement” protects players who seek treatment for alcoholism).  Sabathia was paid on an annual pay schedule, meaning his salary is divvied into 12 increments and paid on a monthly basis.  See id.

[6] See Terence Moore, Alcohol and Athletics Do Not mix, MLB.com (Feb. 29, 2012), http://m.mlb.com/news/article/26908148/ (stating that “beer and baseball have been synonymous forever”).

[7] See id.  Such stadiums include Busch Stadium in St. Louis where the Cardinals play, Miller Park in Milwaukee where the Brewers play, and Coors Field in Colorado where the Rockies play.  For further examples of the relationship between beer and baseball, see also Anheuser-Bush and MLB Properties Extend Partnership to 2018, MLB.com (Aug. 22, 2012), http://m.mlb.com

/news/article/37142330/anheuser-busch-and-mlb-properties-extend-partnership-to-2018, and Murray Chase, Baseball Ignores a Problem More Deadly than Steroids, N.Y. Times (May 8, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/sports/baseball/0

8chass.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print& (deeming baseball and beer as a “revenue team”).

[8] See Dan Levy, Major League Baseball Has an Alcohol Problem, Awful Announcing (Oct. 6, 2015, 12:45 PM), http://awfulannouncing.com/2015/major-league-baseball-has-an-alcohol-problem.html.

[9] See Steven B. Berneman, Note, One Strike and You’re Out: Alcohol in the Major League Baseball Clubhouse, 11 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 399, 404 (2009) (noting that “unlike other professional sports,” almost all MLB teams, at some point, have allowed players to drink beer in clubhouse).  The clubhouse is unique to baseball.  See id.  Due to the length of the season and number of days spent on the road, “the clubhouse becomes a home-away-from-home for many players.”  See id.  After games, many teams offered players all-you-can-eat buffets and open bars.  See id. at 405.

[10] See id. at 405 (quoting Paul Newberry, Baseball Reconsiders Its Long-Running Postgame Tradition, USA Today (May 11, 2007), http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2007-05-11-1901414030_x.htm).  Other leagues do not share baseball’s sentiment regarding drinking in the clubhouse.  See id.  For instance, one spokesman for an NHL team thought it would be shocking for a hockey player to drink a beer after the game.  See id. (citing Newberry, supra note 10) (quoting Anaheim Duck spokesman Alex Gilchrist).

[11] See Mark Faller, MLB is Still Behind the Times, Azcentral.com (Oct. 7, 2013, 11:08 AM MST), http://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/heat-index/2015/10/07/faller-mlb-still-behind-times/73521936/ (observing that by time team makes it to World Series there will have been 19 such celebrations).

[12] See Levy, supra note 8 (claiming celebrations are pre-ordained televised moments sponsored by beer corporations).

[13] See RecoveryConnection, Basemen Loaded, DUI in the MLB, Recovery Connection (Apr. 2, 2012), http://www.recoveryconnection.org/connect/basemen-loaded-dui-mlb/ (determining there were at least 20 DUI arrests of MLB players from 1992-2012).

[14] See Berneman, supra note 9, at 401.

[15] See Moore, supra note 6 (recalling Hancock’s death occurred less than 12 hours after he had pitched for Cardinals).

[16] See Berneman, supra note 9, at 402 (stating Hancock’s blood alcohol was .157 at time of crash).

[17] See Bill Plashke, Baseball is Ripe for a 12-Step Program, L.A. Times (May 13, 2007), http://articles.latimes.com/2007/may/13/sports/sp-plaschke13.  Hancock also drank at a St. Louis bar before the crash.  See id; see also Berneman, supra note 9, at 412 (arguing baseball could be liable to third parties should one of their players get into accident after drinking at clubhouse).

[18] See generally Berneman, supra note 9.  In 2008, the MLB formed a department of investigations to look into players’ alleged performance-enhancing drug use.  See id. at 400.  The league eventually instituted harsh penalties for such usage, such as a fifty-game suspension for the first positive test of anabolic steroids.  See id. at 406; see also Paul White, The Lengths MLB Goes To Protect Sponsors, USA Today (Oct. 23, 2013, 8:03 PM EST), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2013/10/23/mlbs-protects-its-exclusive-sponsors-in-the-postseason/3174007/.  Jeremy Cohn, Major League Baseball’s vice president of corporate sales and marketing, has said of sponsorships: “When we sign a deal, we sign a long-term, all-inclusive deal and we mean business and they mean business.”  Id.

[19] See Kevin Baxter, Baseball Taking Beer Out of Game, L.A. Times (Mar. 20, 2012), http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/20/sports/la-sp-0320-alcohol-in-lockeroom-20120320 (citing nineteen teams that have banned alcohol from clubhouse as of 2012).  Many teams’ clubhouse policies are unknown because teams decline to report them.  See Jon Morosi, It’s Time To Ban Booze in All Clubhouses, FOX Sports (Jan. 29, 2010), http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2010/01/29/time-ban-booze-clubhouses.html.

[20] See generally Major League Baseball 2012-2016 Basic Agreement 224, available at http://mlb.mlb.com/pa/pdf/cba_english.pdf.

[21] See id.  The Treatment Board is to determine whether the player would benefit from a treatment program and if so, which is type of program would be most effective.  See id.

[22] See id.

[23] See id. at 225 (acknowledging participation will be considered as mitigating factor in any discipline imposed by Club or Office of Commissioner).

[24] See National Football League Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse, available at https://nflpaweb.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/PDFs/Player%20Development/2015%20Policy%20and%20Program%20on%20Substances%20of%20Abuse.pdf.

[25] See id. at 21.  The automatic two-game suspension is for a first offense.  See id.

[26] See id. at 8.  Players may enter an intervention program a few different ways: positive test result of a substance of abuse, behavior, or self-referral.  See id.  Alcohol is only prohibited if the player’s treatment plan explicitly prohibits it.  See id. at 8.  But see Mark Kizla, NFL Out of Line To Penalize Bronco’s Pratar for Drinking, Denver Post (Aug. 26, 2014, 6:24 PM MDT), http://www.denverpost.com/ci_26411885/kiszla-nfl-falls-short-matt-prater-ban (arguing NFL monitoring and punishing for alcohol consumption is like Big Brother); see also Kevin Gallagher, Why the NFL’s Drug Policies Are One Big Fumble, Pacific Standard (Sept. 8, 2014), http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/nfls-drug-policies-one-big-fumble-90261 (arguing NFL’s policies fixate on abstinence and fail to investigate whether offender has true problem).

[27] See Lindsay H. Jones, NFL Official: Alcohol Education a ‘Hot Spot’, USA Today (Dec. 8, 2013, 5:44 PM EST), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/

nfl/2012/12/08/josh-brent-dallas-cowboys-nfl-player-drunk-driving/1755935/; see also RecoveryConnection, supra note 13.

[28] See Christine Brennan, More Restraint on Alcohol in MLB Celebrations, USA Today (Oct. 3, 2012, 8:11 pm EDT), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/

brennan/2012/10/03/christine-brennan-mlb-alcohol-celebrations/1610421/ (describing beer and champagne flowing over players’ heads and into their mouths); see also Faller, supra note 11 (noting NFL does not permit post-season celebrations in locker room, even after Super Bowl).  NBA and NHL teams do partake in victory celebrations; however, only the victor celebrates following each league’s championship game.  See Faller, supra note 11.

[29] See Faller, supra note 11.  Upon being asked whether the team would have a champagne celebration, Joe Girardi answered the team would do what it felt was appropriate.  See id.

[30] See Levy, supra note 8 (arguing playoff celebrations relay to fans that “victory comes best served cold filtered, frost brewed”); see also Brennan, supra note 28 (determining such celebrations cannot be easy for players struggling with alcohol issues).  For example, Miguel Cabrera, who struggles with alcohol abuse, had to move from room to room to avoid his teammates’ post victory celebration.  See id.

[31] See Brennan, supra note 28.

[32] See id. (deeming beer as lifeblood of baseball’s financial foundation).

[33] See Levy, supra note 8 (finding it impossible to calculate how much money beer industry has spent on MLB advertising, but considering it extremely lucrative).