The practice disadvantaged Black players seeking injury settlements
Last week the NFL called for an end to what has been referred to as “race-norming” in determining settlement payments for players who suffered debilitating brain injuries as a result of their time in the league. The decision came after a mainstream news special, a lawsuit by two Black players, and more than a dozen wives of Black retired players organizing and sending the judge presiding over the settlement a petition with nearly 50,000 signatures calling for an end to race-norming.
Doctors had denied Black players compensation because they assumed that Black players started with less cognitive brain function than their White teammates. In other words, the Black players were considered less intelligent. For Black players to qualify for settlement relief they must have had an even greater reduction in cognitive brain function than their fellow White players.
Race-norming is the practice of adjusting test scores to account for the race or ethnicity of the test-taker. “It’s morally unconscionable, most certainly politically unsustainable, and legally indefensible,” said sports sociologist Harry Edwards in an LA Times interview upon hearing the news that the NFL is eliminating race-based norms in their evaluation of players seeking compensation for their injuries sustained while in the league.
“You can’t have 74% of the players in the league Black, but when it comes to actually being able to claim access to funds resulting from brain damage, dementia, CTE, other kind of cognitive-deficit-inducing conditions that are directly related to football, all of a sudden there’s a different standard for them. There’s a presumption that they [Blacks] come in at a cognitively lower ranking.”
The NFL in its defense said there was no discrimination and that if there was it had been based on individual doctor’s evaluations of testing scores. “We are committed to eliminating race-based norms in the program and more broadly in the neuropsychological community,” wrote the NFL in a statement, while maintaining that no such discrimination took place in the administration of the settlement.
However, the civil rights suit brought by Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry alleged that they had been denied compensation for their brain injuries because of their race. “When they use a different scale for African Americans versus any other race, that’s literally the definition of systematic racism,” said Davenport.
Cyril Smith, a lawyer for Henry and Davenport, asserted that White players’ dementia claims were being approved at two to three times the rate of those of Black players. But Smith was unable to substantiate his claim because, he said, Seeger and the NFL had not shared any data on the approval rates for dementia claims by White and Black players.
The presumed effort to defraud Black players of their share of money promised to all players who suffered brain injury harkens back to pseudoscience and old fashioned eugenics of the late 19th century that attempted to use science to defend White Supremacy.
The tests assume that Black players have lower cognitive function at baseline. “The NFL has defended the practice in the past saying this was based on long-established tests and widely accepted scoring methodologies, but there’s no scientific evidence to show that Black patients have lower cognitive function, of course,” said Massachusetts General Hospital resident physician Dr. Darshali Vyas. “And it’s at odds with all of our genetic understanding of race to begin with.”
More than 7,000 former NFLers took the free neuropsychological and neurological exams offered in the settlement. There are no clear numbers on how many Black players were denied settlement compensation because of the bias in the testing. Evaluations were given, but many of the players apparently do not know how they actually scored on their exams.