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Skaggs’ Autopsy, and the Language of Addiction

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On July 1, Major League Baseball player Tyler Skaggs, 27, a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, was found dead in his hotel room in Southlake, Texas.  

In the following weeks, Skaggs’ teammates and MLB players from other teams paid tribute to the pitcher, including a July 12 game in which everyone on the Angels wore Skaggs’ name and number. 

Over the weekend, the medical examiner of Tarrant County, Texas released Skaggs’ autopsy which revealed that at the time of death, Skaggs had oxycodone, fentanyl and alcohol in his system.  The cause of death was ruled as “terminal aspiration of gastric contents,” meaning he choked on his own vomit while intoxicated.

The Response to the Autopsy

The Southlake police are investigating Skaggs’ death. According to a statement released by his family through legal counsel, the investigation is tied to an unnamed Angels employee. In the statement, the family, grieving the loss of their son, said they were “heartbroken” to learn Skaggs had drugs in his system. They called it “completely out of character for someone who worked so hard to become a Major League baseball player.” 

The family, who said they were “in shock” at the fact that an Angels employee might be involved, vowed that “we will not rest until we learn the truth about how Tyler came into possession of these narcotics, including who supplied them.” 

Skaggs’ family is mourning his untimely death, and they are entitled to express their heartbreak, sadness, shock and anger. But unfortunately, the assertion that drug use is “out of character” for someone who is accomplished and has a track record of working hard, is an example the kind of stigma that those with substance use disorder face each day. 

The thousands of deaths caused by drug overdoses, including the recent upsurge in tandem with the American opioid crisis, are preventable. Many are ashamed to come forward about their disorder and never reach out to receive the opioid addiction treatment they need. 

The Language of Addiction and Recovery

Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry, John Kelly is one of the creators of Addiction-ary, an online glossary of addiction-related terminology including words that are considered stigmatizing.  

In a 2017 article, Kelly told the Harvard Gazette that using the appropriate language to talk about addiction “goes beyond political correctness. It’s not just a matter of being nice. What we now know is that actual exposure to these specific terms induces this implicit cognitive bias. If you really want to solve the problem, you want to remove barriers and obstacles.”  

So far, Addiction-ary contains mostly terms that addiction treatment professionals use and focuses less on conversational phrases used by lay people. 

But imagine another Major League Baseball player who is living with addiction seeing the Skaggs family’s statement. It would be hard not to internalize the sentiment that addiction is “out of character” for a professional athlete, even if the facts don’t support that statement.  

Since 2014, three MLB players, Oscar Taveras, Jose Fernandez, and then-recently retired Roy Halladay, all died from vehicle accidents that occurred while they were intoxicated. In 2015, pitcher C.C. Sabathia missed playing in the postseason when he checked himself into rehab for alcohol addiction. These are only a few highly publicized examples of how substance use has impacted, or ended, the lives of talented athletes.   

The results of Southlake Police’s investigation, and a subsequent investigation by Major League Baseball, have yet to be announced, but even if there is foul play involved in Skaggs’ death, more attention should be paid to the prevalence of substance use in baseball and other professional sports.  

There is Help

Even though we call athletes heroes, at the end of the day, they are people, just like you and I. They also live with addiction, anxiety and depression and can’t overcome any of these conditions without help.  

If you are struggling with addiction but are afraid to seek help for fear of hurting your reputation or of losing respect at work, you are not alone. There is help.  

The first step in treating alcohol and opiate use disorder is to end the physical addiction through detox. At Atlanta Detox Center, medical professionals provide clients top-of-the-line treatment around the clock, laying the groundwork for the next level of treatment and your long-term recovery. To find out if you need to detox from alcohol and/or opiate use, call to speak to an admissions specialist today at 833-440-8642. 

Amatus Recovery Centers, a division of Amatus Health, offers treatment for drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders in facilities across the country. To learn more visit amatusrecoverycenters.com. 

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