NFL ends ‘race norming,’ a practice that made it tougher for Black players to qualify for legal settlement

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

This month, the NFL announced it would end its practice of “race norming.” UCSF neurology professor Katherine Possin explains, “Race norms adjust the formula and the assumption … it's hard to even say this, but the assumption is that Blacks start at a lower cognitive baseline. And so by using race norms, a Black player must score lower than a white player to receive the award.” Photo by Shutterstock.

This month, the NFL announced it would end its practice of “race norming.” It turns out the practice was tied to a billion dollar legal settlement reached with players in 2013 over brain injuries. Race norming made it harder for Black players to qualify for a payout under that huge settlement because for years, the league assumed Black players started out with lower cognitive skills than white players when testing for dementia and other diseases tied to brain trauma. 

The NFL’s reversal comes on the heels of two players filing a lawsuit over the practice and medical experts raising concerns. 

Retired NFL player Toi Cook played in the league from 1987 to 1997. He tells KCRW, “When you look at the way we practice and know how hard we hit, why does the league play the game the way they play now? Why did they legislate out all the hits that were part of our game and the way they practice? It’s not about how much cognitive [ability] you've lost now. It's when is it coming?” 

He says that after his decade-long stint in the NFL, he qualified for a settlement. His cognitive skills had declined when tested. But he was rejected by the league. 

So how does race norming work? It uses reference groups to test players' scores, says Katherine Possin, a professor of neurology at UC San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center.

“Race norms adjust the formula and the assumption … it's hard to even say this, but the assumption is that Blacks start at a lower cognitive baseline. And so by using race norms, a Black player must score lower than a white player to receive the award,” Possin explains. 

She points out that the motivations behind the process are unknown, but the results are clear. Three-quarters of the dementia claims submitted by former players in 2000 were denied. 

Possin adds, “As Mr. Cook said, he and his wife would say that he has experienced decline in his everyday function. And that's all we need to be looking at. We need a more personalized approach. And also, why do we have to wait until these players are so impaired before they get an award? Why can't we focus more on detecting these diseases earlier and giving these awards to these players who deserve them?”

Though not every player experiences cognitive decline after playing football, Cook says post-career support isn’t common in the NFL. 

“Just because you're not suffering a cognitive decline right now, doesn't mean it's not coming,” he explains. “By the way, if you talk to any player, everyone knows that when dealing with the NFL, with regards to pension, benefits, anything, it's deny, deny, deny till they die. That's their thing. And that's what we're dealing with.” 

Cook notes that race norming is just another form of discrimination towards Black people. “Let me explain race norming. I'll give you some other terms: Jim Crow laws, redlining, voter suppression. It's undeniable what they're trying to do.”

His solution? Offer every player $100,000 per year, every year that they played in the NFL. 

Race norming beyond the NFL

Possin says race norming can be common in childbirth, that the formula used to determine whether a woman can give vaginal birth after a cesarean is adjusted for race. In turn, she says Black moms are more likely to be encouraged to get a second cesarean, which can be riskier to her health.

She says the use of race norming perpetuates the false idea of biological differences that are associated with the color of one’s skin. 

“Being Black in this country is associated with substantial disadvantages on average compared to being white. And unfortunately, rather than actually measuring the causative factors for those disparities, race is being used as a crude Band Aid solution to explain differences in outcomes.” 

She adds, “It needs to be dropped. It is crude. It lacks precision medicine. … Black people are not born with a lower cognitive baseline than whites.”

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