The NFL’s old race-norming ways are about to get costly

Cameron Dantzler of the Minnesota Vikings is taken off the field after an apparent head injury last season.

Cameron Dantzler of the Minnesota Vikings is taken off the field after an apparent head injury last season.
Photo: Getty Images

The NFL has to cut checks to hundreds of former Black players and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Through a vile and hateful practice called “race-norming” — which assumed that Black players and white players did not have the same intellect, due to a racist belief that Black people have lower cognitive levels than white people — the NFL wasn’t properly compensating former Black players for concussions they got while playing. This, of course, happened after the league agreed in 2013 to pay nearly $1 billion in a settlement to players that suffered chronic brain trauma.

That all changed last Friday when it was announced that “of the 646 Black men whose tests were rescored, nearly half now qualify for dementia awards. Sixty-one are classified as having early to moderate dementia, with average awards topping $600,000; nearly 250 more have milder dementia and will get up to $35,000 in enhanced medical testing and treatment,” according to a report from The Associated Press.

“Our work has produced some great results and has opened many eyes,” Ken Jenkins, a former player, told the AP. Jenkins and his wife led the charge by petitioning the federal judge who oversaw the settlement to make the changes, as well as insisting that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division investigate the matter. “Now we’re really focused on getting as many players who deserve compensation to be compensated,” said Jenkins.

“In 2022, how can you possibly think that another human being comes out of the womb with less cognitive ability? It’s just impossible to believe that that can be true,” Jenkins declared. “It’s unspeakable.”

Last year the league announced it would cease race-norming.

“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,” the league said in a statement by spokesman Brian McCarthy at the time. “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.”

Between Deshaun Watson finally apologizing in an on-camera interview — one that basically sounded like an admission of guilt — and the first week of preseason football, the news about former Black players finally getting compensated is one of the most important stories in the NFL in recent years, despite it not being a bigger national headline. Hundreds of former Black players now qualify for payouts from a league that was built on their backs, but which had been devaluing their brains.

The fact that something like race-norming could go on is why Brian Flores has to sue the league for its racist hiring practices, and why, just a few weeks ago Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Kyler Murray had their intellect and talents questioned by some in the league through coded language, all because of the color of their skin.

It’s all connected.

Because once you understand that the powers that be took no issue with believing the idea that Black people, and players, are born with lower cognitive ability, then it becomes even easier to understand why the NFL still hasn’t had a majority Black owner, why we can count the number of Black GMs and team presidents on a few fingers, and how you can have your career ended because you kneeled during a song just because you want the police to stop killing people that look like you.

Last week’s news wasn’t just about a wrong that’s being made right. It was an indicator of just how bad things have always been. 

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