Professional athletes should be measured by their competitive abilities and the content of their character. They should never be measured by the presence of marijuana in their system. Unfortunately, many professional athletes over the years were subjected to the latter.
One of those athletes is first baseman Jon Singleton who, after serving multiple suspensions for marijuana use and being out of Major League Baseball in recent years, is now mounting an inspiring comeback.
In addition to receiving a second chance at a professional career in baseball, Singleton should also be afforded a long-overdue apology for what he was subjected to by the league.
Singleton was initially drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 8th round of the 2009 draft. Fresh out of high school at the time, he was traded two years later to the Houston Astros where he was considered by many Major League Baseball (MLB) analysts to be a rising star. However, by 2018 he was dropped by the Astros and his return to the big leagues seemed unlikely.
During Singleton’s initial tenure in professional baseball, he was suspended three separate times after testing positive for marijuana. The initial incident occurred in June 2012 when he was playing his first season of Double-A. Later that year in December, he failed another drug test due to marijuana, and as a result, received a 50-game suspension.
As part of his MLB punishment for his second offense, Singleton was evaluated by a league therapist and determined to be a “drug addict.” That determination was immediately followed by a month-long stay at an inpatient rehabilitation center. Singleton eventually bounced back from the controversy and had the best season of his career in 2014, just to eventually fail another drug test in 2018 resulting in a 100-game suspension and an unceremonious exit from the league.
Meanwhile, the years of Singleton’s professional baseball career were paralleled by a wave of cannabis reform victories across the country. When he was first drafted in 2009, cannabis was not legal for adult-use in any state in the nation. By 2018, ten states had passed an adult-use legalization measure. Today, that number is up to 21.
Public perception of cannabis legalization has improved dramatically between 2009 and today. Gallup has polled voters annually regarding their views on cannabis legalization every year since 1969 when only 12 percent of poll participants expressed support for legalization.
By 2009 the level of support had increased to 44 percent, which was still clearly less than a majority. However, the most current polling results from 2022 (the most recent year for Gallup’s poll) found that 68 percent of voters now believe that cannabis should be legal for adult-use. Additionally, a Pew Research Center poll from 2022 found that only 10 percent of U.S. voters currently believe that cannabis should be completely illegal.
Even the major professional sports leagues have softened their stance on cannabis use by players, including Major League Baseball. In late 2019, roughly a year after Singleton was essentially driven out of the league due to cannabis use, MLB removed cannabis from its list of banned substances. Furthermore, the league itself is now in the cannabis industry via a partnership with CBD company Charlotte’s Web.
Fortunately, Singleton is back pursuing a career in professional baseball, having signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukie Brewers last year. He played last season at Triple-A Nashville where he excelled, hitting 24 home runs, driving in 87 RBIs and having an on-base percentage of .375. He also set a franchise-record with 117 walks.
That productive season resulted in Singleton making the 40-person spring training roster this year. It is both inspiring and tragic at the same time.
Whether Singleton realizes it or not, or for that matter, whether the league wants to admit it or not, he was robbed of potentially the best years of his athletic career. After all, cannabis is no more or less harmful than it was when Singleton entered the league. The cannabis plant itself did not change, and Singleton’s dedication to his craft did not change either. The only thing that changed was the societal and political opinions towards cannabis and those that consume it.
Singleton, like many professional athletes harmed by prohibitionist policies over the years, was also subjected to an undue influence effort by the league he played in after violating its cannabis policy. He was shamed publicly and privately, forced to see a therapist who officially declared him to be a “drug addict,” and was required to be in a facility for a month. With that in mind, it shouldn’t shock anyone to read some of his old quotes at the time that made it seem like he agreed with what he was being subjected to by the league.
Recent comments made by Singleton seem to provide a more accurate representation of what his true opinions are regarding MLB’s former cannabis policies.
“My career would have been completely different,’’ Singleton told USA TODAY in a recent interview. “It would be a complete 180 to be honest. But times were different then. People thought a different way back then. It’s strange because everyone was so open about alcohol, but had complete different feelings about weed.’’
Fortunately, Singleton no longer has to deal with all of that nonsense, but only after he has endured so much and lost so many years of his career. Even the years in which he did not incur a suspension he was presumably subjected to extensive stigma that negatively impacted some of his opportunities, which is common in professional sports when it comes to athletes that were previously penalized for cannabis.
For the last five years of former National Basketball Association (NBA) all-star Clifford “Uncle Cliffy” Robinson’s life, I partnered with him to help him pursue cannabis reform efforts in professional sports and state-level politics. I saw firsthand that even well after Robinson had retired from the NBA after 18 seasons, he still endured significant stigma related to his past NBA cannabis suspensions and unapologetic use.
Robinson often told me that he felt he could have played more seasons in the NBA, that he was not invited to nearly as many NBA functions as other retired all-stars, and that the reason he was never afforded a post-playing opportunity in the league as an assistant coach or other role was due to NBA leadership considering him to be a “pothead.” Robinson passed away in 2020, so unfortunately he will never be afforded those opportunities.
Elite athletes in other professional sports leagues have experienced the same things to some degree, most notably former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Nick Diaz.
During Williams’s National Football League (NFL) career he was seemingly never measured by his play on the field, but rather, whether he had cannabinoids in his bodily fluids. He was eventually railroaded out of the league despite being one of the most talented running backs of his generation.
The case of Nick Diaz is truly shameful. After a match with Anderson Silva at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 183 in January 2015, Diaz tested positive for cannabis and as a result was suspended for five years by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. A suspension by that regulatory body is the deathblow to any fighter’s career during the suspension period, as most of the sport’s public events are held in Nevada. Diaz would eventually fight again in the UFC, however, only after many of his prime competitive years were needlessly taken from him.
As Singleton continues his MLB comeback effort, it is bittersweet in many ways. His perseverance is commendable and inspiring, and yet, one can’t help but wonder what his career would be like had cannabis prohibition never negatively impacted it. That goes beyond just the time he lost via his suspensions. What would his career have looked like if he was allowed to merely play baseball, with anti-cannabis policies not being a factor? Unfortunately, we will never know.
Cannabis prohibition is wrong and harmful, and that is true inside of professional sports, just as it is true outside of professional sports. MLB may be on the right side of history now, but that was not always the case, and what Singleton has endured is proof of that.
MLB doesn’t just owe Jon Singleton a fair shot at pursuing his dreams; the league also owes him a very public apology, along with a public apology to every other player that was ever needlessly harmed by the league’s previous cannabis policies.
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