Is the NFL dodging concussion payouts by holding Black players to a lower cognitive standard?

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It should be no surprise to anyone when the NFL is accused of doing something racist. The league’s track record speaks for itself.

But now a lawsuit filed by two retired Black players accuses the NFL of using “race norming” tactics to deny them compensation for concussions sustained during their career. In 2013, the NFL agreed to pay nearly $1 billion in a settlement with players who suffered chronic brain trauma from their playing days.

Race norming” refers to the practice of adjusting neurological test scores to account for the race or ethnicity of the subject, a tactic scientists have criticized as discriminatory.


Former Pittsburgh Steeler Kevin Henry alleges that the NFL denied him compensation for what an independent neurologist declared to be a “cognitive decline consistent with mild dementia.” Yet, when he took his claim to the NFL it was denied because the league said the doctor used “inappropriate norms.” Two years after his initial diagnosis, Henry went to another physician who used the NFL recommended formulas or “norms” that included a race, gender, education, and age.

Henry was once again denied compensation based on the NFL-recommended formula.

Henry and another former Steeler, Najeh Davenport, are alleging that the NFL formula used race norming practices to avoid having to pay players. They are saying that the practices assume that Black players and white players do not have the same intellect. Many race norming practices assume that Black people have a lower cognitive level than their white counterparts.


Here’s a highlight from the lawsuit:

If a Black former player and a white former player receive the exact same scores on a battery of tests designed to measure their current cognitive functioning, the Black player is automatically assumed to have suffered less impairment, and he is, therefore, less likely to qualify for compensation.


The NFL has denied these claims of discrimination and told ABC News that the lawsuit is “entirely misguided” the league says the practices are recommended but not required.

However, in emails obtained by ABC, many medical professionals who worked with the league suggested that they were pressured into using the racial norms to assess the former players. One medical professional admitted that the “required reliance” on racial norms did in fact “discriminate against Black players.”


Katherine Possin, Ph.D., of the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, wrote a perspective that details how the NFL’s use of the practice only adds to the long history of discrimination in this country.

Possin notes that medical professionals should conduct new practices to accurately assess patients, instead of race or other social factors. Her proposal would be to evaluate the factors that influence cognitive performance. Instead of a traditional formula of cognitive test scores, a diagnosis should be made after considering a comprehensive evaluation of history, changes in patient functioning, neurological exam findings, lab findings, and social context.


The NFL is 70 percent Black, which means that outdated practices that discriminate on race should have no part in the league now or in the future.

Henry and Davenport’s lawsuit could open the door for many players to finally receive the concussion compensation they deserve after risking their livelihood to make the NFL a multi-billion dollar business.


The lawsuit is another stain for the league in its long problematic history with race. After a year of “racial awakening,” the NFL had many fooled, but those wise to the league’s past know this is who the NFL is.

The league needs to pay these men. Fighting this will only reinforce the racist narrative that the league has been trying to run from for years.