When former major leaguer Ryan Freel died from a self-inflicted gunshot last December at the young age of 36, his family immediately sought answers. Understanding Freel had sustained multiple hits to the head throughout his life — both on and off the field — and as many as 10 concussions according to former teammate Norris Hopper, they decided to donate his brain tissue to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
On Sunday, the results of those tests were released to the public for the first time when the family announced Freel had been suffering from Stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) . He becomes the first Major League Baseball player to be diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease that has also been linked to several professional football players who have committed suicide.
The report from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and Sports Legacy Institute was presented to Freel's mother and stepfather, Norma and Clark Vargas, and to representatives from Major League Baseball on Dec. 11 at the winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista.
There, evidence confirmed that Freel was suffering from Stage II CTE when he committed suicide on Dec. 22, 2012. The family learned of the findings on the same day that MLB announced that it approved a ban on home-plate collisions.
According to the report, people with Stage 2 CTE present symptoms such as erratic behavior and memory loss. Stage 4 CTE, which is considered the worst phase, is associated with full-blown dementia, aggression and paranoia.
It's a disturbing finding that sheds light on just how serious the head trauma issue is in all sports, and also how quickly the toll can add up. Every hit — whether it’s a helmet-to-helmet shot on a football field, an elbow to the head on a basketball court, or an errant pick-off throw that glances off the runner's helmet — adds up.
Here's more from the Times-Union report, including a very powerful quote from Freel's stepfather Clark Vargas.
Clark Vargas said that Chris Nowinski, Co-Founder and Executive Director at Sports Legacy Institute, has made it a point of emphasizing how much attention should be devoted to keeping up with head trauma, even in a sport that isn't as well-known for it. Several concussions that Freel suffered in baseball came on plays such as collisions in the outfield with teammates and the wall, and on pickoff attempts.
"One of the things Nowinski brought up, we're keeping track of pitch counts, can we keep track of how many guys are hit on the head?" Clark Vargas said.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to help Ryan Freel, but his family has done a wonderful thing by contributing to the research of brain trauma in sports. For their part, MLB is attempting to do the same by announcing their ban of collisions at home plate. As we've become more informed on the head trauma issues, it has become crystal clear that eliminating collisions is a must to help protect the long-term health of the players involved. It won't eliminate all of the risks that go along with playing baseball, of course, but it's a huge, necessary step.
The next step beyond that is one we're sure MLB and all other sports will be looking at soon. And that step may just involve taking a more focused look at every blow to the head in any sport, regardless of how minor it appears.
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