NFL Will Stop Assuming Racial Differences When Assessing Cognitive Function of Players

Known as "race-norming," the practice assumed Black NFL players started out with lower cognitive function

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the 2021 NFL Draft
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the 2021 NFL Draft.
Gregory Shamus/Getty

Better late than never?

That’s really the only way to take the news that the NFL, which made $12 billion last year despite the pandemic, is going to eliminate a discriminatory practice that robbed former players suffering from various levels of dementia from compensatory payouts based on race.

Known as “race-norming,” the practice assumed retired Black NFL players started out with lower cognitive function and made it more difficult for them to prove they were suffering from dementia, therefore making it harder to qualify for compensatory awards that average more than $500,000.

Though the NFL technically wasn’t required to eliminate the unsavory practice after a civil rights lawsuit over race-norming brought by a pair of ex-players was tossed out by a Philadelphia judge, 50,000 petitions being dropped at the federal courthouse in Philly by families of players was enough to convince the league to change its policy.

In addition to halting the use of race-norming going forward, the NFL said it will review past scores for any potential race bias in the $1 billion settlement of brain injury claims which means hundreds more players could potentially receive payments. In new claims, the league will now work with neuropsychology specialists to use race-neutral alternatives in testing.

“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 league said in a statement. “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.”

More than $800 million in claims has already been approved by the settlement administrator and that number could increase significantly once the new norms for testing are put in play. Of the more than 2,000 NFL retirees who have filed dementia claims, more than half of whom are Black, fewer than 600 have received awards.

Christopher Seeger, the lead lawyer for the players in the settlement lawsuit who many believe knew about the race-based benchmarks but did not address the problem, issued an apology in tandem with the NFL’s announcement.

“I am sorry for the pain this episode has caused Black former players and their families,” Seeger said. “Ultimately, this settlement only works if former players believe in it, and my goal is to regain their trust and ensure the NFL is fully held to account.”

At the end of the day, it’s excellent the NFL, without being legally forced to, has stopped withholding money from players who may have suffered brain injuries based on the color of their skin, but it is pretty sad it took 50,000 petitions to convince the league to do it.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!