Ryan Freel, Major League Baseball, and Concussions

Dilip Vishwanat

Last weekend, ex-major leaguer Ryan Freel committed suicide. Since, it's been reported that Freel suffered a number of concussions in his life, with perhaps 10 coming during his baseball career. Monday, the Times reported that Freel's parents have asked that Freel's brain be tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) ...

Testing of brain samples drawn from deceased former players by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has found that 33 from the N.F.L., along with 17 who competed at other levels, suffered from C.T.E.

With Freel, the center enters the realm of baseball, a sport not usually associated with head trauma. His parents approved the donation of tissue to search for evidence of C.T.E., which might partly explain his decline as a consequence of the injuries.

"I’m very hopeful," [Free's mother] Christie Moore Freel said. "We certainly believe there is some sort of connection."

--snip--

Freel’s former wife said she found no fault with his teams or their medical staffs, concluding that they diagnosed his condition properly and insisted that he abide by the stipulated recovery period.

"He used to get angry at them, wanting to come back sooner than what they recommended," she said.

A collision with a Cincinnati Reds teammate resulted in 30 missed games because of a concussion that was accompanied by memory loss.

Major League Baseball and the National Football League have handled this issue in entirely different ways, for a couple of reasons: 1) When the issue became apparent to MLB, they could look at the NFL for advice on what NOT to do, and 2) unlike the game of tackle football, the game of professional baseball does not require frequent collisions. In fact, the game was specifically designed as a non-contact sport.

Even if baseball's players and umpires adhered to Original Intent or just the explicit rules, it would be impossible to avoid collisions entirely. No matter what we do, occasionally a fastball will collide with a batters skull. No matter what we do, occasionally two fielders will collide while in pursuit of a batted ball. No matter what we do, occasionally a pitcher won't be able to evade a screaming line drive. These things will, alas, remain a part of baseball. But they are relatively rare events, and the risks are fairly well known.

There are other rare events that might result in concussions, but they don't have to remain a part of baseball. Collisions at home plate should, and someday will, be outlawed; in some quarters at least, they're already discouraged. Someday, we may hope, the rules prohibiting infielders from blocking second and third base will actually be enforced. If Major League Baseball doesn't take further steps to limit concussions, they will eventually suffer financial consequences because players will sue for many millions, just as ex-NFL players are suing. By the thousands.

I don't think the concussion issue is going to hurt Major League Baseball; in fact, it might even help baseball, if you believe that professional sports is a zero-sum game, and that what hurts football helps baseball. I don't believe that concussions are going to sink the NFL -- if nothing else, our elected officials in Washington will do whatever it takes to keep the Good Ship Football afloat -- but the worse the news about concussions gets, the worse for the NFL's business. And the news is only going to get worse.

It's important to mention that we do not have any evidence that baseball players suffer from depression or commit suicide any more than we would expect from a control group. I don't doubt that they do suffer more concussions than average; they probably suffer a lot more concussions than average. And the truth is that nobody really knows yet how many concussions are truly dangerous. Is it one? Probably not. Is it 100? Yeah, probably. But there's no right answer; all we can say for sure is that it's probably somewhere in the middle. But exactly where is a moving target, and always will be.

The goal, in baseball and in every other sport, will be to limit the number of concussions as much as practicable. The good news for baseball and for baseball fans is that there's really not a great deal of work to be done. And that most of the work that can be done, can be done relatively easily. Now let's hope that Commissioner Selig gets to work. After all, he's in his late 70s, and might have just another 15 or 20 years in office.

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