Explained: Why concussion compensation in NFL based on colour was scandalous

The process considers a player’s race in determining whether he is eligible for compensation – essentially reducing the chances of black players earning settlements as compared to white players.

American football’s marquee competition, the National Football League (NFL) has decided to remove an allegedly racial criterion to determine if a player is to be granted compensation under the league’s concussion settlement.

The NFL has used race-norming to determine if a player’s cognitive skills have reduced due to injury. The process considers a player’s race in determining whether he is eligible for compensation – essentially reducing the chances of black players earning settlements as compared to white players.

The league announced its decision to end the controversial practice earlier this month. Additionally, the body claimed it will review past cases and correct decisions where race-norming played a role in players receiving less or no compensation.

“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,” read a statement reported by The New York Times.

“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.”

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What is the NFL’s concussion settlement?

Former players whose cognitive skills have diminished, and/or have been suffering from dementia due to injuries suffered while playing in the NFL are eligible to apply for the program. If granted, the league provides financial compensation to the player.

The players making a claim are examined by neuropsychologists.

So far, reportedly, the NFL has made payments for over 1200 of the 3100 claims made (according to ABC News), coming to a tune of around $800 million (NYT).

What is race-norming?

During a neuropsychologist’s examination, a player’s cognitive test scores are calculated. Race-norming comes into effect when those scores are then compared to the average scores or norms for a demographic group similar to that player – which considers race.

For example, black players were shockingly assumed to hail from communities where cognitive skills are lower than white communities. Therefore, if a black player’s test results are low, it is assumed that the player’s cognitive skills were already low at the onset of his career. Essentially, a black player will have to show greater cognitive declines than a white player in order to get compensation.

How did it affect players?

In September, two former players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport, who had shown symptoms for dementia, filed a lawsuit against the NFL for using this practice after being declined a fair settlement.

“I just want to be looked at the same way as a white guy,” Henry had said to ABC News. “We bust chops together, bro. We went out together and we played hard together. You know what I mean? It wasn’t a white or Black thing. We lost together. We won together.”

Davenport went further to call it racism.

“What the NFL is doing to us right now … when they use a different scale for African-Americans versus any other race?” he said to ABC News. “That’s literally the definition of systematic racism.”

The news network had conducted its own study to measure how race-norming can change results. It accessed 85 different scores recorded by around 40 medical experts between 2016 and 2020. From the 85, 34 players would be eligible for compensation, but once race-norming comes into effect, the number drops down to 10.

The findings also showed that eight former players had scored a ‘Level 2’ neurocognitive impairment – or ‘moderate dementia.’ Race-norming adjusted that score to ‘Level 0’ – or no impairment.

Similarly, 13 players had scored Level 1.5 – or early dementia – which was again reduced to Level 0 after race-norming was applied.

Why is the program used?

Dr Scott Millis, a neuropsychologist who came up with the practice, said to ABC News that race-norming was to “correct for the fact that certain racial groups were consistently obtaining disproportionately low scores on cognitive testing and thus were being incorrectly classified as cognitively impaired. Misdiagnoses of cognitive impairments … can be very harmful. A misdiagnosed retired player could undergo unnecessary treatment, or plan his future based on a misunderstanding of his current abilities and likely progressive decline.”

According to ABC News, the NFL ‘recommended’ the use of race-norming during cognitive scoring. However, a clinician asserted that if race-norms weren’t used, the NFL would then have “multiple inquiries levied at them.”

Why did the NFL change its stance?

Public pressure had started to build up against the league using the practice. Lawmakers in the US Congress had started to question the NFL’s methods.

And, as reported by NYT, while Davenport and Henry’s case was dismissed in court in March, over a dozen wives of black former players organised and sent a petition to the judge with over 50,000 signatures, hoping to bring an end to race-norming.

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