Should Professional Sports Organizations Punish Addicted Athletes?

basketball players

Josh Hamilton is an outfielder for the Anaheim Angels, a Major League Baseball team. He has won the most valuable player award for the American League, and has been chosen to play in the all-star game five times. As a first-round draft pick, Hamilton has in many ways lived up to the promise of his career, performing as one of the best baseball players in the league, but at the same time the pressure that comes with such expectations has taken its toll on him, and has threatened his ability to continue his career. Beginning early, he was discovered to suffer from drug addiction. His team sent him to the famed Betty Ford Center for rehab, but this attempt at sobriety was not successful in the long run. Hamilton failed a drug test in 2003, and again in 2004, after which the league suspended him for a season. The next few years saw a pattern of rehab and relapse, with suspensions from playing mixed in. Addiction was ruining Hamilton’s life. More recently, it appeared that he was getting things under control and he was again living up to his promise as an outstanding athlete, but reports late in February surfaced that he may have suffered a relapse once again over the offseason.

Hamilton has been summoned to New York to address what has been termed a “disciplinary matter” on the subject of his relapse into drug use. Now, speculation is running rampant in the sports news world as to what specific type of sanction, censure or punishment Hamilton might face from the league. Many commentators are coming down on the side of an approach to handling the situation without formal punishment. A piece on NBC Sports, for example, holds that Hamilton should not be formally punished on the basis that addiction is a disease and that Hamilton is not actually willfully doing anything wrong. And there is some truth to that viewpoint. Hamilton, like other addicts, does not want to keep falling off the wagon, doesn’t want to keep getting in trouble and does not want to continue letting others down. It’s not merely a matter of lacking character or moral fiber; the fact that the person is addicted means ipso facto that he or she doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

Can punishment be motivation to quit?

The view voiced by NBC Sports and others, that addiction is a disease, has the advantage of taking a compassionate stance on the question of how to handle an addict, but it does not quite hit the mark, or open the door to a handling for that matter. Addicts aren’t necessarily choosing to go on being addicted, but they do have some choice in the matter. Once a person decides to quit, he or she can begin making changes for the better. That’s what makes the difference between success and failure in rehab — a person has to want to quit and get sober for rehab to work. In the case of someone like Hamilton, who has been to rehab but failed several times, it may be that he has not yet made this decision. It could be that Hamilton has been going to rehab at the behest of others around him who said it was necessary for his career, but he may not yet have chosen to quit. In the debate over whether — and how — professional athletes who use drugs should be punished, there is certainly truth to the side that argues in favor of a compassionate approach, but it should perhaps also be taken into consideration that the stakes have to be high enough to motivate the athlete to quit drugs and alcohol. 

A slap on the wrist might be embarrassing or inconvenient, but tougher consequences may be necessary to spur real change. As long as professional sports leagues hold their players up as role models for children and young adults, there is a responsibility to ensure that the behaviors displayed by the athletes do not send the wrong messages. And at the end of the day, a tough penalty for substance abuse may save the athlete’s life, by getting him to quit before it’s too late.


Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.