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How race norming has made it possible for the NFL to deny settlements to many former players


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On Thursday it was announced that the NFL had agreed to end the practice of ‘race norming’ while navigating its $1 billion concussion settlement. The settlement, which has been ongoing since 2013, has been a groundbreaking class action lawsuit that has paid over $800 million in claims to former players thus far. For many, this news was the first time that we had ever heard of this practice. So what exactly is race norming? And how has it exacerbated existing discriminatory practices both in the world of sports and beyond?

Race norming is a controversial practice in neuropsychology which assumes that Black people perform worse on cognitive tests— such as those used to test for dementia and other brain diseases— than their white peers. This assumption has ultimately barred many Black former NFL players from garnering payments in the ongoing class action concussion settlement— which has been awarding payments to former players who now suffer from brain debilitating diseases due to their time playing for the NFL. While these players are still suffering from the consequences of playing the high contact sport for many years, they have been deemed unqualified for payouts in the landmark settlement. That is, until now.

The original settlement came after over 4,500 former players sued the NFL for concussion related brain problems. The NFL agreed to a settlement which in theory, was supposed to award over 18,000 former players with compensation. However, Black players quickly found that it was far more difficult for them to receive their rightful compensation because the NFL had required that their tests be adjusted for race. Knowing this, a group of Black former professional football players— led by former Pittsburgh Steelers Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport— quietly sued the NFL last year.

Najeh Davenport (pictured above) was one of the former players leading the lawsuit. Photo thanks to Bleacher Report.

Their lawsuit came during a pivotal social wake up call in the United States. Due to the Black Lives Matter protests that had erupted following the murder of George Floyd, Americans were beginning to wake up to the fact that systemic racism was engrained in even the most basic of systems. Their lawsuit was met with overwhelming shock that a practice such as race norming could still be in place, and it ultimately forced Americans to analyze the systemic racism ingrained in the world of sports— even to this day.

Thanks to the lawsuit, and the overwhelming bad publicity that it brought the NFL, it was announced last week that the NFL would discontinue the practice of race norming. “No Race Norms or Race Demographic Estimates — whether Black or White — shall be used in the Settlement Program going forward,” the league announced.

Thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter protest of the Summer of 2020, America began to wake up to the inherently racist practices that have become engrained in our systems to this day. Photo thanks to WBUR.

For players who have been dealing with debilitating brain injuries for years, if not decades, and whose health problems had been systematically ignored, the announcement came as a massive win. However, for many, the agreement is simply a bandage on a far larger problem. Race norming is not a practice that is unique to the NFL. Conversely, the practice has been used in a wide range of medical specialties including pulmonology, neuropsychology, obstetrics, urology and nephrology— according to Scientific American. So while the NFL lawsuit may have shed some light on the problem, it has not solved it entirely. And it has made it clear that we still have lots of work to do in order to dismantle systemic racism in the field of medicine.

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