It’s rather amusing to see one of the sporting world’s most converged organizations, the National Football League, finding itself caught between social justice and its pocketbook:
Race norming is sometimes used in medicine as a rough proxy for socioeconomic factors that can affect someone’s health. Experts in neurology said the way it’s used in the NFL settlement is too simplistic and restrictive, and has the effect of systematically discriminating against Black players.
“Because every Black retired NFL player has to perform lower on the test to qualify for an award than every white player. And that’s essentially systematic racism in determining these payouts,” said Katherine Possin, a neurology professor at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center.
In other major settlements, including those tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing, all claimants were treated the same.
“We concluded, fairly quickly, that we would take the top compensation for the white male and everyone would get the same, the top dollar,” said lawyer Ken Feinberg, who has overseen many of the largest settlement funds. “We would cure this compensatory discrimination by having a rising tide raise all ships.”
The first lawsuits accusing the NFL of hiding what it knew about the link between concussions and brain damage were filed in 2011. A trickle soon became a deluge, and the NFL, rather than risk a trial, agreed in 2013 to pay $765 million over 65 years for certain diagnoses, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. But as the claims poured in, Brody feared the fund would run out early and ordered the cap removed.
The NFL, which foots the bill, began challenging claims by the hundreds, according to the claims website.
In appealing one filed by Najeh Davenport, the NFL complained that his doctor had not used “full demographic norms” in the cognitive scoring. That meant factoring in age, education, gender — and race.
“I remain unsure what you are talking about. He was done using standard norms like everyone else. Using different racial standards is indeed discriminatory and illegal. We stand by our scores,” the physician said in response, according to court records….
The NFL’s dementia testing evaluates a person’s function in two dozen skills that fall under five sections: complex attention/processing speed; executive functioning; language; learning and memory; and visual perception. A player must show a marked decline in at least two of them to get an award.
In an example shared with The Associated Press, one player’s raw score of 19 for “letter-number sequencing” in the processing section was adjusted using “race-norming” and became 42 for whites and 46 for Blacks.
The raw score of 15 for naming animals in the language section became a 35 for whites and 41 for Blacks. And the raw score of 51 for “block design” in the visual perception section became a 53 for whites but 60 for Blacks.
Taking the 24 scores together, either a white or Black player would have scored low enough to reach the settlement’s 1.5-level of early dementia in “processing speed.” However, in the language section, the scores would have qualified a white man for a 2.0-level, or moderate, dementia finding — but shown no impairment for Blacks.
Overall, the scores would result in a 1.5-level dementia award for whites — but nothing for Blacks. Those awards average more than $400,000 but can reach $1.5 million for men under 45, while 2.0-level dementia yields an average payout of more than $600,000 but can reach $3 million.
The problem is that since blacks who play in the NFL have lower average IQs than whites who play in the NFL – which is clearly established through the league’s use of the Wonderlic test for all of its draftees – they don’t need to show as much cognitive decline to register as impaired. Indeed, there are probably a few very low-IQ players who would have registered as impaired before they played a single NFL game.
So, the average white player has to take more damage in order to reach the same level of “impairment” as the average black player, but proving this on a case-by-case basis is impossible without having an initial baseline for each player. Hence the need to race-norm, which of course flies in the face of the league’s official position on equality and therefore renders the NFL unable to utilize science or reason to defend itself.
It’s always nice to see the converged hoist on their own petard, and if there is an organization that deserves to be, it is the NFL.