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‘It’s Really Disgusting’: NFL Gets Rid of ‘Race-Norming’ Practice of Evaluating Neurologically Impaired Black Players Seeking Their Share from Concussion Settlement

The National Football League announced last week that it is ending a medical evaluation practice that made it difficult for Black retirees to be compensated for cognitive damage suffered as a result of playing pro football.

In a statement on Wednesday, June 2, the NFL announced that it would no longer use “race-norming.” The controversial tactic assumed Black players had lower cognitive functioning than their white or non-Black counterparts, thus making it difficult for them to show medical deficit from brain injuries suffered on the field and subsequently disqualifying some from receiving monetary damages from the NFL’s concussion settlement fund.

Running back Najeh Davenport #44 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball against the Baltimore Ravens on November 26, 2006 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 27-0. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images).

Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the league, released a statement on the settlement: “We are committed to eliminating race-based norms in the program and more broadly in the neuropsychological community. The parties to the settlement have been working with the magistrate judge and have assembled the leading members of the neuropsychological industry to help identify alternative testing techniques.” He added, “Everyone agrees race-based norms should be replaced, but no off-the-shelf alternative exists, and that’s why these experts are working to solve this decades-old issue. The replacement norms will be applied prospectively and retrospectively for those players who otherwise would have qualified for an award but for the application of race-based norms.”

The announcement comes after a federal judge’s dismissal in March of a lawsuit filed last year by former NFL players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport accusing the league of discrimination in using the method to decide who could receive payouts from the 2013 settlement. Medical experts also questioned the practice, along with a group of NFL families who last month delivered 50,000 petitions at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. As part of last week’s agreement, the league promises to review past neurological disability claims for any potential racial bias in how they were handled.

The Associated Press reported that the medical practice was created in the 1990s in an effort to offer more appropriate treatment to patients who have dementia. However, critics found flaws in the way it was used when assessing legal damages in the NFL neurological injury cases. The NFL said last week that the race-morning practice was developed “to stop bias in testing, not perpetuate it.” It also said that the method was never mandatory but left it up to the doctors taking part in the settlement program, but the league would sometimes appeal a determination that a Black player was eligible for a certain payout if the race-norming was not used in the assessment of his neurological damage.

“America is better than this,” retired NFL player Jack Brewer said during an appearance on “Cavuto: Coast to Coast” last week. “When you look at race-norming, you’d assume this practice would have been done away with 30, 40 years ago, but to go into it and assume that my cognitive ability as a Black man is lower than my white peers or any other race is absolutely ridiculous.”

He continued, “I mean it’s really disgusting when you think about that, that an institution as large as the NFL and the medical community in general still uses these type of practices.” Recent reports show that more than 2,000 NFL retirees have filed dementia claims but less than 600 of them have received an award. More than half of all NFL retirees are Black.

Now the NFL, a panel of neuropsychologists — two female and three Black doctors — have proposed a new testing regime to the court.

“The replacement norms will be applied prospectively and retrospectively for those players who otherwise would have qualified for an award but for the application of race-based norms,” McCarthy said. 

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