Brain Injuries Cause For Concern In Baseball Too

Reports show former Major League Baseball player Ryan Freel, who took his own life last year, suffered from a degenerative brain disease. Injuries like that are usually associated with the hard knocks of football. Host Michel Martin talks with sports writer Pablo Torre about the prevalence of brain injuries in other sports.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the producers of "Saturday Night Live" say they are still on the hunt for diverse cast members, but somehow Harvard's famed humor magazine, The Lampoon, has managed to find some. We'll find out how the newly elected president and vice president of The Lampoon are making history in just a few minutes.

But first, we go back to sports and news about safety that you might find surprising. When you think of head injuries in sports you probably think football because that issue has been in the news increasingly because of the deaths and injuries of former players, which are believed to be linked to chronic head trauma coming from repeated blows to the head, which are part of the sport. Now, though, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine say former Major League Baseball player, Ryan Freel, was suffering from the degenerative brain disease CTE. Freel is the first baseball player diagnosed with CTE - or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The findings emerge from analysis of Freel's brain tissue, which were submitted after Freel, who suffered from depression and substance abuse, took his own life last year.

Pablo Torre is a senior writer with ESPN, he's a regular on our Barbershop roundtable, and he's been looking into this. And he's with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome back, Pablo. Thanks so much for joining us.

PABLO TORRE: Of course, Michel.

MARTIN: So how - do you know how the idea of sending Freel's brain tissue for testing emerged - because, as we just said, this has been something that has been so much of an issue in football that people are focused on that? Do we know why there was some suspicion that traumatic brain injury might have been a part of Freel's medical history?

TORRE: Right. For that we have the researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine and their center for CTE research to thank - specifically it's called the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. And so what they're doing is expanding - they've already had interest in this - but expanding the range of their research to sort of look at all athletes, anyone whose brain - to quote a neurologist - whose brain has been jostled like Jell-O in a bowl.

And obviously that simple mechanical process isn't limited to just football. But now we're seeing with Ryan Freel, you know, one of these guys - a journeyman player, a utility player - somebody who was famed in baseball, as so many players are, for diving against the wall, for diving for catches, for playing this all-out style. He was the first, now, player to be found with stage two of CTE, which is not the highest form. But it's certainly enough to be correlated with very troubling side effects.

MARTIN: Do we know how much brain injury Freel experienced during his playing days - even dating back to playing as a child?

TORRE: Well, we know that he once estimated that he had 10 concussions as a baseball player. That was his own self estimation - certainly not something recorded by individual neurological tests. But his family, after he died - he killed himself with a shotgun in late 2012 - after he died, his family estimated that the number was probably much more.

And that's not uncommon when you look at the range of an athletic career dating back to childhood and so forth. And so even in childhood, we should note also - I mean, there's emerging research about how especially dangerous it is for a young brain to be jostled in the way that I described.

MARTIN: Just last week, Major League Baseball voted to eliminate home plate collisions. Is there any indication that this was related to the news about Ryan Freel and his diagnosis, even though the diagnosis just came out after the decision was made? But do we have any sense that they were related somehow?

TORRE: I can't say for sure that Freel's research had leaked and motivated this. I would not be surprised if MLB was aware in some sense of that emergent research. But in either event, baseball deserves credit because whether it took Freel or whether it took this body of scientific literature that's emerging, baseball, as you know, is maybe the last sport to be hailed as progressive in a lot of ways. It was - it is a sport that has really never repudiated tradition for the sake of modern understanding, whether it's dating back to integration, whether it's dating back to any sort of social issue. Baseball has been slow.

But in this case, it has not. And I think as much as Ryan Freel may be the impetus and the trigger for that, I think the NFL is as big of a factor. Major League Baseball is looking at the NFL and looking at the future of that sport, both in terms of public relations but also in terms of demography. Who is willing to play football? Which parents are willing to have their children suit up to play catcher, collide at home plate, do all of these risky things? And I think baseball sees an opportunity to protect itself as well.

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you that. You are leading to where I wanted to go next, which is, how is this news being received - particularly in Major League Baseball? I mean, obviously there's a ripple effect, too, as you noted, you know, down the ranks of youth sports and so forth. Do you - I understand that this news is just out, but how is this news being received by the sport?

TORRE: Unsurprisingly, there is the old guard of players, whether it's - you know, and they bring up these highlights that we love, much in the same way that football - we've loved these highlights of collisions. In baseball, the equivalent is, for example, Pete Rose knocking out Ray Fosse at home plate - catcher-on-catcher damage, or rather Pete Rose-on-catcher damage.

And in that case, you know, Pete Rose - old-school guy - isn't exactly thrilled with the new rule changes. And he's not alone, but that seems to be a generational thing. And I would be very surprised if the current generation in going forward - if the scientific understanding did not outweigh the sort of guilty pleasure we get at seeing pain by other people.

MARTIN: Just before we let you go, I want to mention a study that also came out last week in the Journal of Neurology. It suggests that college athletes with head injuries performed up to 20 percent worse on cognitive tests after just one season. And I just, you know, have to ask, are these findings becoming part of the conversation in sports? I mean, we talked about the guilty pleasure that, you know, we all get from - not all of us, but people who are sports fans get from seeing these huge people, like, flying through the air and doing these amazing things and, you know, throwing their bodies...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...You know, into the air and flinging themselves after a ball. I mean, it's gorgeous in some ways. But are these kinds of findings becoming part of the regular conversation that athletes are having, that their families are having or that people who are administering these sports are having?

TORRE: They are, and I think they begin to manifest themselves most palpably. I mean, we haven't seen the effects of this with parents and at the point in which a suburban, higher-level demographic - financially - parent doesn't want their kid to play a certain sport. That's when the effects start to multiply. But college sports, Michel, which you mentioned in that study on neurology pointing out the memory effects, college athletes - that's the next frontier and that's where the conversation needs to go and hasn't really gone as much yet. Part of that is because college athletes, as we all know, are not unionized.

They're technically not professionals. They can't express outrage in the same way. There's a shelf life for them. They're cycled in and out. But we are understanding now why the younger brains may be more at risk and why sub-concussive hits - not just the big hits, but the little hits that accumulate, whether it's at practice or not - are so dangerous. And I should note - there isn't a clear, linear causal effect yet. We can't say that scientifically.

MARTIN: Important.

TORRE: With Ryan Freel, even - exactly.

MARTIN: Important to note.

TORRE: Depression, mental illness - we don't know, but there's a troubling correlation and that's what we got to look at.

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN, a regular on our Barbershop roundtable, with us from our bureau in New York. Pablo Torre, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TORRE: Thank you, Michel.

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