Update on Concussions in Athletics: Traumatic Brain Injury in Baseball?!
What’s the latest on all that news about concussions in the NFL? It’s been a while since this story initially made its way into headlines and penetrated news and popular culture around the country. The neuroscience world continues to bustle over the story and research on the disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, remains a priority right here at the Boston University School of Medicine in the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) directed by Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Anne McKee, and Mr. Chris Nowinski. Especially with the release of the Frontline documentary released last October titled “League of Denial” (see below), aimed at exploring the possibility that the NFL has mishandled the concussion issue for a number of years, have more and more families in the United States and all over the world begun to understand the potential repercussions of traumatic head injury.
Unfortunately, many of us have heard of the passing of a number of former NFL players from recent stars like Junior Seau to former greats like Mike Webster. But more recently another death occurred that surprised the sports world. Ryan Freel, a former Major League Baseball player who played in the big leagues for just short of a decade, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in December of 2012. A year later news broke that Freel was diagnosed with CTE postmortem. He is the first baseball player to be diagnosed with the disease. A baseball player with CTE? No way! With the general impression that CTE comes from repeated severe head trauma the diagnosis that Freel received does not seem to make any sense. But when looking at the story a little closer key facts emerge. Freel was always known for his aggressive and fearless style of play, part of what earned him a job in the major leagues. By his own estimate he received at least 10 concussions over the course of his MLB career and probably many more than that over the course of his life. With news that a baseball player has now contracted this progressive neurodegenerative disease this again changes the playing field for the sporting community.
In my eyes the fact that a baseball player has been diagnosed with CTE goes to show that this issue is much larger than athletics. Sports are merely illustrating for us the extremely fragile state of the human brain. From football to baseball to those who serve in the armed forces there are many circumstances in which one can injure their head. Symptoms may be instantaneous and others may show up much later in life. The key message is that we need to take care of our brains. A knee injury and a head injury are not the same. More and more steps are being taken by professional organizations to protect members. For example, the MLB has been working to implement rules outlawing home plate collisions, an event where players are often concussed or otherwise injured in some way. This issue is slowly making its way into the fabric of many of our most beloved institutions. Other hopeful news is that a judge recently rejected the $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players seeking compensation for football related neurological injury. The judge fears that this sum of money is too small to cover all of the players, present and future, who will be affected by such illnesses. Based on the rate at which new cases are appearing, she is probably right! It is promising to see such progress and a slow change in the mindset of the general public but there is still much work to be done to give people and their brains the proper protection.
-J. Daniel Bireley
Check out the Frontline documentary here:
Judge Rejects $765 Million NFL Concussion Settlement – PBS Frontline
Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy – Boston University School of Medicine