The National Football League on Wednesday pledged to halt the use of “race-norming” — which assumed Black players started out with lower cognitive functioning — in the $1 billion settlement of brain injury claims, as well as to review past scores for any potential race bias.
According to Associated Press reports, the practice of race-norming had made it harder for Black players to show a cognitive deficit as the result of head injury and qualify for compensation. The standards were designed in medicine in the 1990s in hopes of offering more appropriate treatment to dementia patients, but critics faulted the way it was used to assess legal damages in the NFL case.
Wednesday’s announcement comes after a pair of Black players filed a civil rights lawsuit over the practice, medical experts raised concerns and a group of NFL families last month dropped 50,000 petitions at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia where the lawsuit had been thrown out by the overseeing the settlement.
At the time, Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody claimed the lawsuit was an improper "collateral attack" on the settlement, but later took the unusual step of asking for a report on the issue. Black retirees hope it will include a breakdown by race of the nearly $800 million in payouts so far.
Lead lawyer Christopher Seeger, who negotiated the 2013 settlement with the NFL on behalf of players, said earlier this year that he had not seen any evidence of racial bias in the administration of the settlement fund. He amended those remarks Wednesday, apologizing for any pain the program has caused, the AP reported.
“I am sorry for the pain this episode has caused Black former players and their families," Seeger said in a statement. "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."
A panel of neuropsychologists, including two female and three Black doctors, has been formed to propose a new testing regimen to the court, the NFL said in a Wednesday statement, which added, “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.”
Both Seeger and the NFL say the practice was never mandatory, but left up to the discretion of doctors taking part in the program. However, the NFL appealed some claims filed by Black players if their scores were not adjusted for race.
As reported by the AP, more than 2,000 NFL retirees have filed dementia claims, but fewer than 600 have received awards, according to the most recent report. More than half of all NFL retirees are Black, according to lawyers involved in the litigation.
The awards so far have averaged $516,000 for the 379 players with early-stage dementia and more than $715,000 for the 207 players with moderate dementia. Retirees can also seek payouts for Alzheimer’s disease and a few other diagnoses.