And when the camera zooms into the Cowboys’ huddle and fans squint just so, they just might see the words “Black Lives Matter,” a phrase that once defined an inspired movement but now has been reduced to a helmet decal. Surely, this is why Colin Kaepernick knelt.
The NFL’s nod toward racial and social justice, or at least the watered-down activism beloved by corporations, would be a bit more believable if the league showed more compassion for the lives of Black former players. Instead, this mistreatment emphasizes the ways in which the NFL still doesn’t take responsibility for the inequity it dishes out.
Last month, a group of ex-NFL players, most of them Black, delivered a formal complaint to the Justice Department. They want an investigation into whether the civil rights of ex-players were violated in the settlement of former players’ class-action concussion lawsuit against the league. When the settlement of the landmark case was finalized in 2017, the NFL agreed to pay out huge sums, even as high as $5 million, to players who were diagnosed with brain diseases connected to the game. However, it has come to light that a number of Black players with dementia have found it difficult to qualify for payouts in part because the process basically required doctors to “race-norm” cognitive tests administered in the claims process.
To qualify for a payout, former players have to endure a battery of cognitive tests proving they are suffering from dementia. Because African Americans tend to score lower on some neurological tests, doctors sometimes apply “African-American normative corrections” to the scores of Black patients, a controversial — and, in most settings, optional — practice designed to avoid misdiagnosing healthy people.
Though the league alleged the examining doctors had the final say, a Washington Post investigation revealed the NFL and lawyers for former players constructed a system in which doctors were effectively forced to use race-norming, making it harder for Black players to qualify.
In June, the league and the lead attorney for the more than 20,000 former players in the suit pledged to remove race-norming from the settlement process. Also, a judge appointed a mediator to look into the situation.
But imagine how the five players involved with the petition to the Justice Department feel seeing “End Racism” on the turf when they believe their former employer tried to trample on their civil rights.
And if you’re Rick Cunningham — an otherwise physically healthy 54-year-old former player who couldn’t remember the word for a “pool cue” — how would you react to the NFL’s pledge to donate $250 million to its “Inspire Change” campaign when the league’s lawyers fought you over your $700,000 payout?
Other billion-dollar sports leagues have embraced social justice by slapping buzzwords on the playing surface. After restarting the 2019-20 season in its Disney World bubble, the NBA prominently displayed “Black Lives Matter” on the hardwood for all games. During the week of Opening Day games in 2020, Major League Baseball stenciled “BLM” on pitchers’ mounds.
It’s easy to mock and disregard these acts of social awareness, or to heap too much praise on leagues for finally taking a moral, if also a bit convenient, stand. But when the NFL tries to show a heart and enter this arena, the reaction should be clear and unwavering: This is not enough.
The league cannot claim that “It Takes All Of Us” when it has worked so forcefully against its own. And over what? Money — and often not even that much money — for players who helped make NFL franchises worth an average of almost $3.5 billion?
If there are fans who actually care about the treatment of these aging and battered gladiators, then more of them should be outraged by this league. And if the NFL truly wanted to be a champion of justice — instead of trying to appeal to the mainstream while not being too woke to scare off red states — then it needs to do right by these players.
But once again, the league’s instinct to protect its money and squeeze its own guys out of a concussion settlement proves the only color that matters in the NFL is green.