On the same day he told a grieving family why a father and husband and son might have killed himself, Chris Nowinski found a measure of solace in knowing he may have helped prevent many more from doing the same. His work on the front lines of concussion research is simultaneously grim and hopeful, depressing and invigorating, horrifying and edifying, the sort that leads him into a room with those closest to former major leaguer Ryan Freel so he can tell them about the depth of the disease doctors found in his brain.
The counterbalance to that meeting came later that day, when Major League Baseball officially announced a ban on home-plate collisions, which were petri dishes for concussions. If the players' association approves the rule, as expected, a runner trucking a catcher will be a relic. And Nowinski will have another victory against the concussion scourge that many doctors believe is a forthcoming neutron bomb on generations of aging athletes' brains.
"Home-plate collisions were a lot of fun to watch when we didn't think there were consequences down the road," Nowinski said. "But I think it was a very responsible decision for everyone in baseball. They did this before there was knowledge of any CTE cases in baseball. It's nice to see what we've learned in the research embraced."
By now, everybody who follows sports, and many who don't, know that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is the ugliest three-letter acronym introduced to popular medical lexicon since HIV. Doctors believe brain trauma, from head-rattling hits in football to innocent falls by first basemen diving for balls, can cause concussions that eventually lead to degeneration of the brain. It was a sickening discovery for anybody who knows the horrors of a concussion, and even worse when linked to the suicides of former NFLers Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, and now Freel, the first baseball player diagnosed with CTE.
The discovery did not register as a surprise. Freel talked about sustaining upward of 10 concussions. One is scary. Two can end careers. Today, doctors would consider anything more flirting with disaster. The sadness of Freel's story is only compounded by the reality that his brain wouldn't have suffered nearly the destruction it did were he merely born a decade later.
Many of Freel's concussions came due to a style of play that, depending on perspective, alternated between exhilarating and dangerous. Baseball is not necessarily a sport that invites concussions like football or hockey or even lacrosse. Still, unlike plenty of issues with which it has grappled, health and otherwise, MLB's response to concussions has overflown with proactivity. Not only does Nowinski laud the league's seven-day disabled list for concussions – borne of an injury-analysis initiative run by some of the brightest minds in the sport's labor-relations department – he said MLB officials at the meeting with Freel's family peppered him with questions not of the defensive nature he's seen from other sports but with a simple request: Help us improve.
"There's a specific concern about catchers due to brain trauma on foul tips," Nowinski said, and unlike with collisions at home, there is no foolproof workaround. Manufacturers can start by innovating the sorts of helmets that dull blows and fit well; Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez, after suffering a concussion last season, tried a more protective helmet, then reverted to his original because of comfort. More radical is an idea implemented in professional rugby leagues: Should a collision in the outfield, a foul tip or otherwise prompt fear of a concussion, bring a player out of the game for a test, and if a doctor clears him, allow the player back into the game.
Baseball is years away from even considering such an idea. Testing it in youth leagues, on the other hand, can give a better sense of feasibility, and it's an initiative MLB will consider passing down. The league appreciates Nowinski and Robert Cantu and Ann McKee and the other doctors and researchers willing to blaspheme to spread their message. Just last week, Nowinski said, while in London he suggested considering a ban on headers for soccer players under 10. The response reminded him of his time as a WWE heel.
"Changing the culture," he said, "is very difficult."
If further research supports the early findings of CTE, it will get far easier with time. When talking with athletes, Nowinski calls himself career insurance. It's not just the long-term consequences that athletes should think about; it's their livelihoods, the sort of which so many have lost. And often, not even that is enough to change people's minds. Nowinski is up against a lot.
He faces troglodytes like Pete Rose who gin up canards in order to glorify themselves when their glory is nothing more than a relic of machismo that today is reckless and frowned upon. He stares down a league like the NFL that calls on a house-organ website to fart out the most pathetic bilge possible, a "story" with the temerity to point out baseball's concussions when the NFL settled for upward of a billion dollars because of its long-held, R.J. Reynolds-style denial that its product, you know, may well be leading to deaths.
Baseball is a lot of unsavory things and embodies plenty of corporate ugliness, but give it this much: It cares about its players' brains. Part of it is to mitigate potential liabilities, sure, but there is more.The sport felt a palpable sadness, from teammates' comments to executives' laments, the day Mike Matheny had to retire because of concussions, and the same went for Corey Koskie, and Jason LaRue, too. Justin Morneau's issues scared the Minnesota Twins for years, and Joe Mauer's will continue to do the same. There will be more, because it's sports, played at breathtaking speed by remarkable athletes, and no matter how much the league tries to protect the players, there still will be one who dives for every ball, body be damned, because it's who he is, what he is.
As long as the mechanisms for progress remain in place, Chris Nowinski will walk along satisfied. Doctors believe they can diagnose CTE in living brains now, which is progress. Nowinski wants to find a cure. Until then, he'll take everything he can get. And no more home-plate collisions are a pretty good win for a cause that deserves every one it can get.