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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Baseball Player Ryan Freel Had CTE: Why Aren't We Freaking Out?

Ryan Freel was a utility player, bouncing around the major leagues for about eight seasons. During his career, he took a few shots to the head and had problems with memory loss and headaches. He finally retired in 2010 after he couldn't shake the injuries caused by a pickoff throw to the head in 2009.

Ryan Freel committed suicide in 2012. The family had his brain investigated, and found that Ryan Freel had evidence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in his brain. CTE, if you'll recall, is the disease that destroys boxers and has ravaged the NFL. It's a degenerative disease that appears to be caused by repeated head injuries.

This is the first case of a baseball player being diagnosed with CTE. So why aren't we freaking out like we do with boxing and football?

More and more, it's appearing that there is nothing that can be done to make football "safe." For example, Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots got injured a few weeks ago. The defensive player went low to avoid hitting Gronkowski in the head, and ended up destroying Gronkowski's ACL in the process. However, Gronkowski still suffered a concussion on the play, rendering the defensive player's attempt to protect Gronkowski's head meaningless and destroying his knee and career for nothing.

During a game, there are only three people on the field that are not guaranteed to have contact with another player: The quarterback, the kicker and the punter. Most of the time, even those three players are not immune. Every other player is bound to have contact in some form or another, whether it's blocking or tackling. Contact is part of the game. Remove contact from football and you're just playing tag.

It doesn't matter how you legislate football. The game is always going to be about collisions and hitting, which has been proven to cause brain trauma and eventually brain damage. You can try and prevent players from hitting high, give them extra padding in their helmets and flag players for rough hits, but the result is the same: People will get hurt, and seriously so.

Likewise, how would you remove head injuries from boxing? Remove knockouts? Disallow punches to the head? If you make changes like those, then it's no longer boxing.

Baseball, however, is not a contact sport. Yes, Freel sustained injuries while playing, but those were, for lack of a better term, accidents. For example, a baseball player shouldn't normally get hit in the head on a pickoff throw. When you play baseball as it's meant to be played, concussions and head trauma do not happen.

Baseball has also made efforts to curb the contact, like removing collisions at the plate. (Side note for those who think the rule change is a sign of the further wussification of America: Why was it that the catcher could block the plate but no one else? If blocking the bases were allowed for everyone, Prince Fielder's value would skyrocket.) A player still might fling themselves into a wall or get hit on the head, but our ongoing understanding of head trauma is going to make sure that players keep themselves safe.

Now, do head injuries happen in baseball? Absolutely. Head injuries can also happen if you're working construction, or working as a welder. Head injuries are an abnormal part of the job, not a normal part.

Freel's case, while tragic, is an outlier in the sport. In the last ten years, we've learned so much more about head injuries, which should help keep players safe in the future. The key takeaway, though, is this: Unlike football, baseball can and will be made safer. Hopefully, the sad case of Ryan Freel will spur the process along.