By Benjamin Rubin
New York City, New York
On June 2, the NFL pledged to halt the practice of ‘race-norming,’ which assumes that Black players start out with lower cognitive function than non-Black players. The agreement, which also includes a promise to review past testing and reassess for potential racial biases, is part of the $1 billion settlement of brain injury claims brought by former players. A panel of neurologists will propose a new testing system to the court.
Race-norming made it especially difficult for Black players to show that they had a mental deficit due to brain injuries suffered while competing. Because of this, they could not claim monetary damages from the NFL.
The race-norming standards originated in the 1990s to offer more appropriate treatment for dementia patients; however, it has been condemned for its involvement in determining payouts in the concussion case against the NFL. According to the AP, over 2,000 retirees have filed for dementia claims, yet less than 600 have received awards.
The pledge came after extreme criticism: a civil rights lawsuit over the practice by two Black retirees, recent concerns raised by medical experts and petitions by NFL families at the Philadelphia courthouse where the lawsuit had been dismissed.
The former players that raised the suit—Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport—were denied awards but claimed in the suit that they would have qualified if they were white. Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody threw out the suit, though he asked for a report on the issue. Black retirees hope it will comprise a breakdown of roughly $800 million in payouts on account of racial biases.
“We are committed to eliminating race-based norms in the program and more broadly in the neuropsychological community,” said spokesman Brian McCarthy in an NFL-issued statement “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. 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.”
Brian McCarthy told the AP that race norms were created to “stop bias in testing, not perpetrate it.”
Thousands of lawsuits have accused the NFL of hiding its knowledge about the connection between concussions and brain trauma—this settlement ends them all.
Former Washington running back Ken Jenkins, whose wife Amy Lewis has played a critical role in leading petitions on behalf of NFL retirees struggling with cognitive issues, awaits concrete action taken by the NFL: “Words are cheap. Let’s see what they do.”