How Ryan Freel's Positive CTE Test Can Help Change MLB Policy on Concussions

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterDecember 17, 2013

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The sad part about the recent news that former Major League Baseball player Ryan Freel, who committed suicide last December, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy—known as CTE—is that it served as a reminder of a life and career that once was.

The tragic part would be if baseball does nothing about it going forward.

Freel was the first MLB player to be diagnosed with CTE, according to Justin Barney of the Florida Times-Union, who wrote an in-depth, detailed story citing Freel's family's reaction, as well as medical reports, terminology and doctors who specialize in studying the brain.

The report on Freel's brain that revealed that he had the degenerative brain disease came from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and Sports Legacy Institute and was presented last week at MLB's winter meetings.

That last part is especially significant, because it puts the onus on baseball to continue to address player safety on the field, particularly when it comes to head trauma.

To an extent, no matter what MLB does, concussions cannot be avoided. They're a part of any sport that involves actions like diving, sliding, running or any other motion that might result in impact with the ground or a wall or another human being.

For instance, when two outfielders converge on a fly ball in the gap and smack into each other while running at or near full speed in pursuit of the play, there's nothing any rule or policy can do to prevent either or both from getting injured or potentially concussed.

Just like there's no rule or policy that can prevent a freak thing like this—a pickoff throw striking the back of Freel's head in April 2009—from happening either:

"When it comes to the development of CTE," co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU, Robert Stern said per CNN, "our current sense is that it requires repetitive brain trauma and not just a couple of big concussions."

Freel also suffered head injuries as a young child, as Brett Popplewell wrote in a deep-dive retrospective piece on the former eight-year veteran for Sportsnet magazine. Those could have affected his brain, too, perhaps making him especially prone to CTE or other brain-related concerns. 

The good news for MLB is that it would seem logical and likely that head trauma—and thus CTE—is not as big of a threat in Major League Baseball as it is in more contact- and impact-oriented sports like boxing or hockey or football or even soccer (where players use their heads to make direct contact with the ball on a regular basis).

(It should be noted here that the previous statement comes with the caveat that this writer isn't a scientist or doctor specializing in the area of brain activity, function and damage.)

But just because head and brain trauma and concussions are not as likely in MLB doesn't mean they don't happen—they definitely do.

Just ask Justin Morneau, who suffered a concussion so severe in July 2010 when he was kneed in the head while sliding into second base—another freak accident—that he missed the rest of the season and continued to have lingering effects beyond that.

Or Corey Koskie, who said this, per the Associated Press, about his comeback attempt in March of 2009 after suffering a concussion on the field in 2006:

I wanted to get back out there. I wanted to play. It might have been a little too soon. I might not have been prepared. I kind of decided, I said, 'You know what? Really, is it worth it? Is it worth the risk to go out there and play a couple more years versus having the rest of my life, living a normal life?' That's one of the biggest questions with a concussion because you try to minimize your symptoms, and you always feel you can do it.

There are more, too. Plenty more.

And so MLB took the step in 2011 to create the seven-day disabled list, specifically for handling and treating concussions.

And recently, the news came that the sport will be banning home-plate collisions, the most violent contact action between two players that happens on the diamond, many of which result in concussions.

Here is what New York Mets general manager—and chairman of the Rules Committee—Sandy Alderson said, per Paul Hagen of

This is, I think, in answer to a few issues that have arisen. One is just the general occurrence of injuries from these incidents that affected players, both runners and catchers. And also kind of the general concern about concussions that exists not only in baseball but throughout professional sports and amateur sports today. It's an emerging issue, and one that we in baseball have to address as well as other sports. So that's part of the impetus for this rule change as well.

There's also another mandate from 2011 that says starting with last season, all players must wear a specific, upgraded helmet—the S100 Pro Comp from Rawilngs—which is designed to provide batters more protection from 95 mph fastballs. This happened in the wake of dangerous beanings, like that of New York Mets star David Wright in August 2009.

The league also made it mandatory, starting in 2008, that all coaches on the field of play wear protective helmets, as a reaction to the tragic death in 2007 of minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh, who was struck on the head by a line drive while coaching first base.

So MLB deserves credit for having taken and continuing to take steps to address this concern, which is a smart and good thing. But baseball, no doubt, needs to stay on top of this growing problem—as do all sports. Because when it comes to head injuries, prevention—rather than treatment—should be the focus.

For example, the penalty for disobeying the brand new home-plate collision rule is not yet determined, but perhaps consequences should be implemented that are strict enough for players who intentionally and deliberately violate the agreement. Say, a steep fine and an automatic five-game suspension, either of which which could escalate for repeat offenses.

Of course, whenever fines and suspensions are involved, so too, must the Players Association be in the approval, so this is also on the players themselves.

The league could also adjust the current concussion protocol with regard to the seven-day DL and the process players must pass in order to be allowed on the field.

Beyond that, league and team doctors should be required to keep up to date on the latest developments in head-, brain- and concussion-related injuries and the resulting damage and prognoses. Bringing in experts, like those at the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and Sports Legacy Institute, for annual education would be safe and smart.

And speaking of those experts who are doing the actual studies and research on the brain, it might be a good idea for MLB to consider finding out just how prevalent CTE has been in baseball in the past—to help dictate the proper approach and awareness for this issue in the future.

It's obviously a sensitive subject that requires family permission, as well as all sorts of legal and even moral considerations, but MLB might consider the possibility, like the NFL has, of giving financial support to and encouraging the testing of other samples from deceased former players who suffered collisions and/or concussions in their careers.

After all, Freel was just the first former Major League Baseball player diagnosed with CTE. There are bound to be more out there—either now or in the future—and it's in baseball's best interest to recognize that Freel's sad, untimely and tragic death could spark a cause that helps save other players' lives.

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