The sports world was tasked with trying to learn from another tragedy on Saturday when former Cincinnati Reds utility man Ryan Freel was found dead in his apartment.
Jennifer Kay of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports) reported, “Freel, who was 36, died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted shotgun wound.”
Freel was a popular player throughout his career due to his reckless style. But playing without fear did not come without consequences, and Kay notes that Freel “once estimated he had sustained up to 10 concussions.”
Currently, there has been no autopsy or official cause of death released, and there is absolutely no current evidence to link Freel’s tragic death with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain diseased caused by repeated head injury.
But when an athlete who was adored and looked up to during his career dies by his own hand, the public tries to make sense of the incident. As was the case with Jovan Belcher's and Jerry Brown’s deaths, the country wondered what could be learned from these types of tragedies.
Belcher’s murder/suicide sparked a conversation about a gun culture in sports, while the car accident that led to Brown’s death caused discussions about the prevalence of drunken driving among professional athletes.
With Freel’s death, head injuries and CTE will be the focus of a national conversation.
Slate’s Daniel Engber raises important questions about the lack of conclusive findings linking suicides to CTE and notes that there are many factors in a person’s life that can lead to suicide. In the case of Junior Seau’s death earlier this year, he writes, “Seau was beset with a smorgasbord of risk factors for suicide, regardless of the state of his brain.”
But a growing amount of research from organizations such as the Sports Legacy Institute is providing more answers about the disease. While it may be difficult at this to identify a history of concussions as the sole—or even main—cause of a suicide, SLI’s website notes, "The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia."
The conflicting opinions on the impact of CTE on professional athletes is one of the most intriguing and important debates in sports, and Freel’s tragic death adds important insight into the conversation.
Whether or not evidence is found proving that he suffered from the disease, his death follows the basic pattern of athletes such as Dave Duerson and Mike Webster: a history of serious head injuries followed by a suicide several years after retirement.
But Freel was a baseball player, not a football player. The current conversation surrounding CTE is centered almost entirely around football, and the majority of the athletes brought up as examples of those who suffered from the disease are NFL alumni.
SLI’s website notes that the condition was originally known as “punch drunk syndrome” and was thought to occur mainly in boxers. Now, football players are the poster children for head injuries, but the conditions surrounding Freel’s death should serve as a reminder that athletes in all sports are at risk.
People who play baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey and a number of other sports for a living all put themselves in positions to sustain repeated head injuries across the course of their career.
CTE is not a problem exclusive to football players, and that is one lesson that should be taken away from Freel’s tragic death.
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