Did concussions lead former baseball star Ryan Freel down the road to suicide? That is the possibility being raised after the release of new information about Freel’s state of health in the weeks leading up to his death. And if you ask me it’s no coincidence that this information is coming out at the same time baseball is trying to sell the idea of eliminating home plate collisions as part of a push to protect player safety.
Freel’s family revealed recently that it had elected to donate brain tissue from the former Cincinnati Reds player after his death by self-inflicted gunshot wound last December, in hopes that by studying the tissue, doctors might learn more about Freel’s neurological condition at the time of his suicide.
Doctors discovered signs consistent with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head. CTE as it’s known has also been discovered in the brains of dead boxers and NFL players who suffered multiple concussions. It was found in Junior Seau, the famous former Chargers player who shot himself to death in 2012.
While still alive, Freel claimed to have suffered at least ten concussions playing baseball. Freel was well-known as a scrappy player who was not afraid to go flying head first into outfield walls, bases, other players…anything to win.
But Freel’s courageous style of play may have ultimately cost him his life. Before his suicide, Freel suffered from multiple symptoms consistent with CTE, including depression, memory-loss and aggressive behavior.
The shocking deaths of famous retired players like Seau, Dave Duerson and Mike Webster have contributed to a new atmosphere of caution in the NFL, and the implementation of new safety-related rules. Baseball is now addressing the matter in a similar way by voting to remove home plate collisions from the game.
The release of this information about Freel should play neatly into baseball’s PR effort surrounding the new home plate rule, which is being portrayed as a necessary step toward making the game safer, but is seen by some as an unacceptable violation of baseball’s historical purity.
Forget about the purist angle though. The real issue is that, in the end, this rule will do little to protect player safety and is really just a cosmetic move, especially when it comes to concussions. Collisions at the plate are rare to begin with and seldom result in players suffering head injuries. Collisions with the wall are more dangerous in that regard, and that is purely a matter of an individual player’s style of play. What do you do about that?
Baseball is in the same situation the NFL has found itself in. You can create all the safety rules you want, but you can’t legislate aggressiveness out of the game. Just as some players are going to fling themselves around on a football field with reckless abandon, some baseball players are going to fly around head-first with no regard for their own safety.
Sports will always be dangerous. Head injuries will always be a part of sports. Cosmetic safety rules that don’t really address the central issue won’t make much difference. There will always be Ryan Freels out there who care more about making the catch or taking out the second baseman than they do about their future health. That’s the issue, and there’s nothing you can do about it without completely destroying the sport.
Guys are going to abuse their bodies and brains, because that’s just the way they’re wired. Some of those guys are going to come to bad ends. It’s sad, but it’s part of the deal. Get rid of home plate collisions if you want, but don’t try to sell me on the idea that you’re helping anything.