One by one, the Major League Baseball players came to the witness stand. "I took opioid pills," they said. All said they got the pills from the same person.
For some it was for pain, and for others it was recreational. But for one of their own, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, taking opioids proved fatal. He died in a 2019 overdose, joining the half a million people in the US who have similarly perished in the last decade, and showing how the lethal epidemic has swept through the nation and into America’s iconic sport.
On Thursday, a jury in a federal courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas, found former Angels communications official Eric Kay, 47, guilty of distributing the counterfeit, fentanyl-laced pills that led to Skaggs’ death and of conspiracy to possess pills with intent to distribute. Kay faces a minimum of 20 years to life in prison.
“The players' testimony was incredibly difficult for our organization to hear, and it is a reminder that too often drug use and addiction are hidden away,” said Angels President John Carpino in a statement, noting that the league began testing players for opioids after Skaggs’ death.
“We are very grateful to the government and the jury for seeing this important case through to the right verdict,” said Skaggs’ family in a statement released through their attorneys. “We are relieved that justice was served, although today is a painful reminder of the worst day in the life of our family.”
And while the trial provided solace to Skaggs’ family, medical experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News suggested that the rigid legal language of the courtroom failed to address the realities of addiction and drug use. There, Kay was a “drug dealer,” according to prosecutors, and Skaggs and Kay were “drug addicts,” according to defense attorneys. In truth, a deadly double play of inadequate treatment for opioid addiction and widespread counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl made Skaggs’ death more likely, just as it has for too many others.
“One important way to understand what happened in the case of this tragic overdose death of a professional athlete is to recognize it as yet another tragic example — albeit a very specific, high-profile example — of what American society at large has been suffering through for the past two decades,” said Stephen Taylor, medical director of the NBA/NBPA Player Assistance and Anti-Drug Program. More than 1 million Americans have died of drug overdoses since 1996, the year that oxycodone pills were first widely marketed in the US.
According to trial testimony and court records, Skaggs died in a Hilton hotel room in Southlake, Texas, on an Angels trip to play the Texas Rangers after snorting crushed blue pills imprinted with “M/30” to look like genuine 30-milligram oxycodone pills. Skaggs likely thought or hoped they were real oxycodone, based on past texts with Kay. Former Angels players Matt Harvey, C.J. Cron, Mike Morin, Cameron Bedrosian, and Blake Parker testified they had in the past received pills from Kay.
Counterfeit pain pills like the ones that killed Skaggs instead contain the opioid fentanyl, which is 30–50 times more potent than heroin. Illicit fentanyl is the leading reason for the calamitous waves of overdose deaths nationwide in the last decade. Fake pills laced with fentanyl have been linked to the deaths of Prince and Tom Petty, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration warning in September of a “sharp increase” in their spread nationwide, worsening the already terrible overdose crisis by reaching people who think the pills are real or who had shied away from injection drug use, and who lack the tolerance to opioids seen in those who have experience as heavy drug users.
Both Skaggs and Kay had been using opioid pain pills for years, according to trial testimony and previous news reports. Skaggs’ stepbrother testified that he had tried to help the pitcher wean himself off painkillers after a 2013 injury with twice-daily half doses of oxycodone. Skaggs' mother testified that he had tried to quit “cold turkey” — just stopping and enduring the agony of withdrawal — after weaning didn’t work.
Kay, meanwhile, had been in and out of rehabilitation programs repeatedly, according to his mother, ESPN has reported. His most recent stint was 30 days in rehab after an overdose, according to news reports, whereupon he returned to the Angels' clubhouse. He was then trying to quit opioids, according to testimony from Parker, even though players were still asking him for pills. An attorney for Kay did not reply to a request from BuzzFeed News for comment on his recovery program after his May release from rehab, and there was no mention of it at the trial.
“Opioid use disorder is a chronic ailment characterized by compulsive opioid use, where people sort of lose control over their opioid use, where they experience cravings,” said Brian Hurley, president-elect of the board of directors of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Typically, they experience consequences.” While not commenting on the Kay trial, he added that the failure rate for people trying to quit opioids on their own without continued treatment “is somewhere around 100%.”
The simple reason is brain biochemistry, wherein opioids create cravings and an increasing tolerance that requires larger or more frequent doses to stave off withdrawal. Typically, it takes years of recovery to ward off these changes, leading to relapses in drug use and a lifetime of effort. Only about 1 in 5 people who need the gold-standard treatment for opioid use disorder — which involves long-term counseling along with prescription use of safer opioids to carefully lower their tolerances and manage cravings — actually get it.
Major League Baseball does have a treatment program policy for opioid use disorder, but it cuts players’ salaries in half after the first 30 days of treatment away from the club, and then completely after 60 days. The players who testified in the trial may now be referred for treatment by MLB, which did not test for opioids in 2019.
“What sort of surprises me is that we don't see any evidence of medical staff involvement with these people” in the Kay trial, said Mishka Terplan, Friends Research Institute medical director and an expert in addiction medicine. “Addiction is a chronic disease, and chronic diseases require chronic management,” Terplan added, not just a month of rehab or a detoxification program, in which people are medically treated through withdrawal before they are put back into their old situation.
“There's no reason for the expectation that an acute intervention would treat, much less cure, a chronic condition. It’s an old-fashioned and out-of-date and unscientific and illogical idea.”
Although everyone is different, Taylor called it “disturbing” to read about a case, such as Kay’s, in which a person with a serious opioid use disorder entered an inpatient treatment program for one month and then returned to the same place where he had allegedly been using and distributing drugs.
“Many of us in the addiction treatment field recognize that to be an alarmingly high-risk situation, regardless of the type of work the person does,” Taylor said.
The jury in Kay’s trial deliberated for less than 90 minutes Thursday before finding him guilty.
“Unfortunately, the guilty verdict will not bring Mr. Skaggs back or take away the suffering his family and friends have endured,” DEA Fort Worth Special Agent in Charge Eduardo A. Chávez said in a statement. “What it does do, however, is affirm that justice prevails and drug dealers and enablers, like Mr. Kay, will be held accountable for their reckless actions.”
After 50 years of the war on drugs in the US, which has seen overdose deaths skyrocketing and deadlier, easier-to-smuggle, illicit fentanyl widespread enough to invade Major League Baseball clubhouses, there is some skepticism about the effectiveness of criminal trials like the Kay case in deterring anyone from opioids.
“We have a need to blame ‘someone.’ So we blame the ‘dealer’ without considering that many people who sell also have an addiction,” Opioid Policy Institute Director Jonathan Stoltman told BuzzFeed News.
“Who benefits from this brand of ‘justice’? It's not like some criminal mastermind with distribution networks throughout LA was removed and the streets are forever safer. Everybody's life is a little worse with this approach.”