The NFL and the NFL Players Association recently paid for a study on CTE. The conclusions were released on Tuesday, and while there is the usual amount of research language to sort through, one of the big takeaways is that the types of concussions suffered by linemen are more likely to produce CTE than those suffered by skill position players.
The study divides NFL players into two categories — speed players and non-speed players, the definitions of which are just what you’d expect. Offensive and defensive linemen are non-speed players. Wide receivers and defensive backs are speed players. Tight ends and linebackers are a bit of a mix. If you’ve paid attention to this issue over the years, you may have already assumed that, despite the sensational nature of the collisions suffered by speed players, it is actually the smaller, repeated collisions suffered by linemen that create a greater risk for CTE.
And that’s more or less what the study concluded.
By analyzing the brain scans of 61 former players — half played only college ball, and the other half went on to play professionally — the researchers concluded that their hypothesis was correct: Certain positions were linked to greater white matter damage due to recurring head impacts. In particular, they looked at the effects of playing speed positions, like running backs and wide receivers, versus non-speed positions, such as offensive and defensive linemen. In general, linemen tend to bear the brunt of brain impacts, especially those to the front of the helmet.
Individuals that played non-speed positions that had a history of recurrent concussions (three or more), they found, had more damage to their frontal white matter, the part of the brain where CTE takes hold. That wasn’t the case for those that played speed positions and had a history of concussions, suggesting that the way that non-speed players become concussed is different and more dangerous.
The sample size (61) remains small, but for football fans looking for a reason to believe the game can evolve to a more safe place without losings its physical essence, this has to qualify as (mildly) encouraging. Football isn’t really football without the trenches, but maybe helmet technology will eventually be able to reduce the risk for linemen, who can’t be protected with the rulebook as effectively as the fast guys can.
Or maybe we’re just headed for 7-on-7.