The Back Road: Race norming and the NFL

The Island Now

Andrew Malekoff

For this week’s column I almost wrote about the strange case of deranged far-right wing dentist, Rep. Paul Gosar, who tweeted a doctored anime-themed video depicting him murdering Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and assaulting President Biden.

His intro to the sick video was, “Any anime fans out there?”

Rather than wax poetic about yet another congress member with rocks in his head, I decided to address the most recent chapter in the ongoing story of the National Football League’s neglect of retired players suffering from concussion-related brain injuries.

In a nutshell, the latest is that the National Football League and attorneys for thousands of retired players came to an agreement to put an end to race-based adjustments, a procedure known as “race norming” that’s used to determine dementia settlements in concussion claims.

Dave Zirin of “The Nation” explains, “Because Black people have a higher rate of dementia as seniors — just a part of the poorer health statistics that haunt the Black community as a result of institutionalized racism — the NFL’s testing starts with the assumption that Black athletes have a lower cognitive functioning baseline.

This makes it more difficult to show the effects of post-concussive syndromes and qualify for the settlement.” Consequently, hundreds of Black players suffering from dementia may have been prevented from winning awards that average $500,000 or more.

There is of course a backstory.

In 2002, Nigerian-American physician Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered the presence of degenerative disease in the brain of then destitute and mentally ill NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster. He named the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). You might recall that Dr. Omalu was portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film Concussion.

Omalu faced enormous obstacles. He was smeared by the National Institute of Health which said he was not a reputable doctor, despite the fact that he earned eight degrees and certifications. He was defamed by the NFL which tried to stonewall his discovery and disassociate the fact that repeated blows to the head were the cause of a degenerative brain disease that led to the premature deaths, including suicides, of scores of former players.

It took the NFL until 2013, 11 years after Omalu’s 2002 discovery, to reach a $765 million settlement (updated to $1 billion in 2015) over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players. They agreed to compensate victims, cover the cost for medical exams and underwrite research.

The fact is, however, that a significant portion of the fund was withheld from those it was promised. In 2018, USA TODAY reported that as the award notifications begin to trickle out, some of the recipients, as well as their families, were shocked to find they would receive pennies on the dollar of what they were owed.

It took eight more years following the 2013 settlement for the NFL to stop the use of race-norming which, again, operated from the premise that Black players begin with lower cognitive function, making it more difficult to show they suffer from a mental deficit related to their time on the gridiron.

Attorneys for the Black players pointed to the racial disparity, suggesting that white men were qualifying for awards at two or three times the rate of Blacks since the payouts began in 2017. It remains unclear, according to an October 21 report by the Associated Press, whether a racial breakdown of payouts will ever be done or made public.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the NFL’s continuous actions and inactions regarding head injury were solely in the service of raising their bottom line.

The sad reality is, once they finally accepted football’s role in advancing degenerative brain disease, they instituted a special carve-out of Black players who they labeled as cognitively inferior and, therefore, unworthy of equal settlements to their white counterparts; in yet another episode of the sordid saga of health disparities in America.

Any NFL fans out there?

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