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Hundreds of Black former NFL players get awards after end of ‘race-norming’

Former NFL players Ken Jenkins, right, and Clarence Vaughn III, center right, along with their wives, Amy Lewis, center, and Brooke Vaughn, left, carry petitions to the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

More than 300 Black former NFL players originally denied payments from the league’s massive concussion settlement now qualify for money or league-funded medical treatment, according to a report filed in federal court Thursday, following the elimination of controversial “race-norming” from the settlement.

The report, produced by the law firm that handles claims for the NFL, summarized the initial impact of last year’s removal of race-norming from the cognitive tests players must take to determine if they qualify for the settlement awards.

The use of race-norming in the NFL concussion settlement first came to light in a lawsuit filed by two former players in 2020, and while the league and the lead lawyer for players in the case initially disputed allegations of racial bias, both sides eventually agreed to modify the case’s testing protocol to make it race-neutral.

Out of 646 Black former players who had their test results rescored using the new system, 61 qualified for new or increased settlement payments, according to the report. Another 246 former players qualified for a pre-dementia diagnosis, the report shows, which will earn them NFL-funded medical treatment. Most of those players are expected to eventually qualify for settlement payments ranging from more than $25,000 to more than $5 million, depending on factors including age and length of NFL career.

How ‘race-norming’ was built into the NFL concussion settlement

The NFL and Brad Karp, the league’s lead attorney on the concussion settlement, did not reply to requests for comment Friday. In a statement, Chris Seeger, lead lawyer for players in the settlement, hailed the changes to the test-scoring protocol, as well as the broader settlement.

“Our focus in implementing this rescoring process has been to provide more retired players and their families with critical benefits, increase their access to information, and ensure greater equity and transparency going forward,” Seeger said. “With the settlement just crossing $1 billion in approved claims, we believe it will continue to be a lifeline for former NFL players for the decades to come.”

Race-norming is a controversial practice that assumes Black people perform worse on many common tests of cognition. It originated in the late 1990s, devised by doctors aiming to prevent the misdiagnosis of brain injury or disease in otherwise healthy people from underprivileged backgrounds. When cognitive test scores are race-normed, they are essentially curved using software or calculations that take into account a person’s race. Other demographic factors are also commonly considered when curving cognitive test scores, such as age, gender and education level.

In regular clinical work, doctors can choose whether to apply race norms to the test results of their patients. In a lawsuit filed against the NFL in 2020, however, former players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport accused the league of requiring doctors to race-norm all scores from Black players seeking settlement payments, making it harder for Black players to qualify.

The league denied the allegations, and the federal judge overseeing the settlement dismissed the case. The judge directed lawyers for the NFL and Seeger to examine the issue, however, and last year the sides negotiated the removal of race norms from the settlement’s evaluation process.

The figures released in Thursday’s report are not the final tally of the impact of the removal of race norms. More than 2,400 other players whose claims may have been affected by race-norming can still go through the settlement’s medical evaluation again, to see if they now qualify, and hundreds more were in the process of being evaluated when these changes were implemented.

Finalized in 2017, the NFL concussion settlement resolved a class-action lawsuit involving thousands of former players who alleged the league failed to protect them from concussions and hid evidence of the long-term risks of playing professional football. While admitting no wrongdoing, the NFL agreed to pay settlements to any member of the class of more than 20,000 former players who was diagnosed with one of a series of neurological conditions, including dementia, ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.

Through late July, more than 1,400 former players had qualified for payments under the settlement, according to the report, costing the NFL nearly $990 million.