Emily Moss, MJLST Staffer
Sunday’s Super Bowl LV had a notably different tone than in any other year. Cardboard cutouts and masked fans filled the stadium, there was no audience on the field during The Weeknd’s halftime performance, and the NFL aired an anti-racism commercial that opened with the line “football is a microcosm of America.” This commercial, which NPR dubbed the “worst hypocrisy from a sports league,” is the most recent in the NFL’s string of racial justice focused actions. Yet the league where Colin Kaepernick has not played since he knelt in protest of police brutality and racial inequality is unwilling to reckon with its own racial injustices. Days before this year’s atypical Super Bowl aired, ABC News reported on emails it obtained, suggesting that clinicians doing evaluations as part of the NFL’s concussion settlement program were required to use different cognitive scales for Black and White players.
Th ABC News report stemmed from a long line of litigation over NFL players’ head injuries. In 2014, faced with growing research about the effects of professional football on players’ brains and a long list of players who committed suicide in a pattern related to brain injuries, the NFL and a class of “roughly 18,000 retired players and their beneficiaries” entered into a settlement agreement. Plaintiffs’ attorneys Sol Weiss and Christopher Seeger stated that the agreement was “an extraordinary settlement for retired NFL players and their families—from those who suffer with neurocognitive illnesses today, to those who are currently healthy but fear they may develop symptoms decades into the future.” Some plaintiffs, however, expressed concern, calling the settlement a “lousy deal” for players whose symptoms would not meet the compensation requirements.
On August 25, 2020, Black NFL retirees Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, sued the NFL. The complaint claims that “the [NFL concussion] Settlement Agreement is marred by an unacceptable flaw: the National Football League and NFL Properties, LLC (collectively, ‘the NFL’) have been avoiding paying head-injury claims under the Settlement Agreement based on a formula for identifying qualifying diagnoses that explicitly and deliberately discriminates on the basis of race.” Pursuant to the settlement, in order to establish a player’s cognitive function decline, clinicians compare players to a baseline. When determining the baseline, doctors can consider a number of factors, including age, education, and, significantly, race. A scale that uses such “race-norming” assumes that Black players start out with a lower cognitive function baseline than White players. The result is that a Black player may be denied compensation for the same cognitive function that would trigger compensation for a White player. This scheme “is particularly insidious because it presumes Black retirees to be less intelligent than their non-Black fellow retirees.” The complaint thus alleges deprivation of equal rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
The NFL moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim on November 2, 2020. The motion argues that (1) the use of “race-norming” is contemplated by the 2014 judicially-approved settlement to which the plaintiffs were given notice and an opportunity to object, (2) the plaintiffs failed to establish intent to discriminate as required by § 1981, and (3) the plaintiffs failed to establish but-for causation as required by § 1981. The plaintiffs filed a reply in December but the judge has yet not ruled.
In a statement responding to Henry and Davenport’s suit, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that “[t]he federal court is overseeing the operation and implementation of that settlement, and we are not part of selecting the clinicians, the medical experts, who are making decisions on a day-to-day basis.” However, when Davenport applied for compensation based on a determination from a clinician who did not apply race-norming standards, the NFL appealed his application, claiming “his neuropsychological test scores may have been calculated with improper demographic norm adjustments.” And while the NFL maintains that the settlement program does not require race-norming, according to a recent ABC News report, a neuropsychologist who evaluated NFL players for the settlement program claimed that, in his experience, “when clinicians deviate from the algorithm, there are multiple inquiries levied at them.” Another clinician stated that assessment was “right on target.”
The ABC News investigation supports the lawsuit’s claim that the NFL compensates White and Black players based on different standards. As one clinician put it “[b]ottom line is that the norms do discriminate against Black players . . . [s]o now what? In this time of reckoning, like many professions, I think we need to look closely at the expected and unexpected ramifications of our practices.” While the NFL has not released its settlement statistics, the ramifications of this practice is clear. Black retirees will be denied compensation more than White retirees. In a country where medical racism is prevalent, the NFL is indeed a “microcosm of America.”