Researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy announced that former Major League Baseball player Ryan Freel was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”) at the time of his suicide last December. He is the first MLB player to be officially diagnosed with the disease.
CTE is a brain injury associated with repetitive brain trauma (such as concussions) which causes the abnormal build-up of tau proteins in the brain. Early symptoms of the disease include erratic behavior and memory loss, but it can progress into full-flown dementia, aggression and paranoia as time goes on. Eventually, this protein build-up can also disable neural pathways controlling memory, judgment and fear.
Freel had a history of concussions and head injuries dating back to his early childhood. Later, while playing for eight years with five MLB clubs, Freel attacked the game with a fearless style, diving after balls and crashing into outfield walls. During his pro baseball career, Freel estimated that he had 10 concussions, though his family members believe that number was actually much higher. Freel’s stepfather believed the official diagnosis confirmed what he had suspected was going on with Ryan, noting “Knowing that he’s been suffering for 11 years and that CTE is a progressive disease, it gives explanation (for) some of the irrational things that he may have done. You know, he had a reason.”
This suicide is the latest in a string of pro-athlete self-inflicted deaths at least partially attributable to CTE-related symptoms. Several notables of this group include former NFL greats Terry Long, Andre Water, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling.
Still, because researchers can only definitively diagnose those with CTE through posthumous testing of brain tissue, identifying former athletes at risk of suicide is extremely difficult. Commenting on the issue Dr. J. Clay Goodman, a professor of pathology and neurology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, noted “We can learn a lot about diseases by studying these higher-risk populations . . . . Until we know much more about CTE, however, it is not possible to generalize about the risk of development even in elite athletes, much less more casual athletes or the population at large.”
Following the news of Freel’s death, Major League baseball issued a statement indicating that it was working with medical experts “to remain proactive on concussions and head injuries.” MLB has also responded to recent diagnoses of concussions in its players by instituting educational programs and rule changes, such as a new ban on home plate collisions in 2014.