Some people in our country argue that systemic racism isn’t real—that it happened in the past, during slavery and Jim Crow, but that it doesn’t exist today. Yet earlier this month, the National Football League (NFL) confessed to a practice of systemic racism in determining awards for injuries suffered while playing. This practice has been in place since the 1990’s. It’s called “race norming." The NFL’s announcement came after a pair of Black players filed a civil rights lawsuit over the practice.
WHAT IS RACE NORMING?
Also called “score adjustment therapy,” race norming is the practice of “adjusting aptitude and neuropsychological test scores to account for the race or ethnicity of the test taker,” according to historian Bradley Neece. Its purpose is to counteract alleged racial bias by leveling the playing field so that Whites are measured against Whites and Blacks are measured against Blacks, and so forth.
Dave Zirin, in an article in The Nation, wrote that the practice of “race norming” goes back to 1981, when aptitude scores, as a part of federal job applications, were adjusted to account for the race and ethnicity of the person taking the test. An article in the Spring, 1996 issue of Public Personnel Management gave me further insights into the origins of the practice.
The General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB), was developed for use by the federal government as a valid indicator of job performance for most of the 12,000 job classifications in the U.S. economy. As use of the GATB increased, Blacks typically scored below Whites, in part because standardized tests are inherently culturally biased against minorities and thus fail to accurately predict job performance. Hiring on the basis of the highest scoring applicants severely hurt minority applicants. So to promote federal equal employment opportunity and affirmative action goals, race norming, or within-group-norming, of test scores was invented. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines noted that “a racially biased test can be used if the results are race normed.”
Race norming was first used by the Carter Administration and then further implemented and extended by President Reagan in 1981. The practice was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which declared race norming and any other means of changing or modifying employment related tests on the basis of race or ethnicity “no longer in accordance with the law.” Again, the purpose of race norming was to counteract racial bias in aptitude tests. In other words, its goal was to correct racist practices, not to implement them.
While racial bias is inarguable, the scientific racism that is built into race norming laid the groundwork for the bias to occur.
Scientific racism is the act of justifying inequalities between natural groups of people by recourse to science. Wikipedia’s definition is:
“Scientific racism, sometimes termed biological racism, is the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism (racial discrimination), racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Historically, scientific racism received credence throughout the scientific community, but it is no longer considered scientific.”
Samuel George Morton was one of the many White scientists who weaponized science to legitimize and justify the superiority of the White man and the inferiority of the Black man. Born in 1799, Morton was an anthropologist, physician, writer, university professor, and a Quaker. He was considered to be the originator of the American School of Ethnology, the origin of scientific racism.
In 1839, Morton put forth Crania Americana, in which he related skull size to intellectual ability. His study concluded that Caucasians have the largest skulls, thus the largest brains, while Negroes have the smallest skulls, therefore the smallest brains. His conclusions were so convincing that most White Americans of his day justified slavery by claiming that Black people were inferior, thus Whites were within their rights to subjugate them.
Many people of Morton’s day believed he was right. After all, it was the era of slavery, when many Whites would rather have had a clear conscience regarding their treatment of Blacks than being convicted of their mistreatment of them. But today, while most anthropologists conclude that bias played a role in his hypothesis, some still believe he was right.
RACE NORMING IN THE NFL
Race norming was used by the League when calculating the amount of money to be paid for former players’ claims for diseases that arose from concussions or other head injuries suffered while playing.
The NFL has been using a scoring algorithm to determine the negative effects of concussions or other head injuries suffered while playing. The League’s policy was to use an algorithm that assumes the baseline cognitive functioning of Black players was less than that of their White counterparts, leading to reduced damages payouts to Black men for the same injury. Black claimants had to demonstrate more impairment to receive the same financial awards as their White counterparts. This practice, which went unnoticed until 2018, has made it harder for Black former players to show a deficit and qualify for an award.
When doctors determine the level of brain damage incurred by Black players, since they are believed to have the lower cognitive ability, the damage is not regarded as severe as their non-Black counterparts. Thus, the Black players’ payout has been less than the non-Black player who has incurred the same injury.
According to an article by the Associated Press, race norming is sometimes used in medicine as a rough proxy for socioeconomic factors that can affect someone’s health. Experts in neurology said the way it’s been used in the NFL is too simplistic and restrictive, and has the effect of systematically discriminating against Black players.
Here is race norming—supposedly a civil rights violation against White people—being used not to correct racial imbalances but to codify and exploit them.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disorder has been associated with repetitive head trauma.
In one of the largest studies on the subject to date, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looked at the brains of 202 deceased people who had played football at various levels, from high school to the NFL. (The brains had been donated to a brain bank at Boston University for further study.) The researchers diagnosed CTE in 87% of the players. Among the 111 NFL players, 99% (110 out of 111) had CTE.
Several studies have found that suicidal behavior, dementia, cognition problems, and declines in memory, executive function, and mood are common among players with mild to severe CTE. Among players with severe CTE, 85% had signs of dementia, and 89% had behavioral or mood symptoms, or both. They were also likely to have issues in brain regions associated with depressive symptoms, impulsivity and anxiety. Cognitive symptoms, like issues with memory, executive function and attention were found in 95% of the players.
Professional athletes are at higher risk for CTE because of their high likelihood for concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. In 2016, a health official with the NFL acknowledged the link between football and CTE for the first time.
The severity of CTE symptoms appeared to progress the more a person played the sport. High school players included in the study tended to have mild disease, and most college, semi-professional and professional players had severe symptoms.
Just before the start of the 2013 football season, the NFL reached a tentative $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries, agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams, and underwrite research.
More than 4,500 former athletes—some suffering from dementia, depression or Alzheimer's that were blamed on blows to the head—had sued the League, accusing it of concealing the dangers of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field while glorifying and profiting from the kind of bone-jarring hits that make for spectacular highlight-reel footage. Plaintiffs included Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl linebacker Tiaina Baul "Junior" Seau, who committed suicide in 2012.
Under the settlement, individual awards would be capped at $5 million for men with Alzheimer's disease, $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with CTE, and $3 million for players with dementia, said lead plaintiffs' lawyer Christopher Seeger. The awards so far have averaged $516,000 for the 379 players with early-stage dementia and $715,000 for the 207 players with moderate dementia. Retirees can also seek payouts for Alzheimer's disease and a few other diagnoses. The settlement ended thousands of lawsuits that accused the NFL of long hiding what it knew about the link between concussions and traumatic brain injury.
The NFL long has denied any wrongdoing and insisted that safety always has been a top priority.
The NFL’s announcement this month came after two Black former players—Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport—filed a civil law rights lawsuit against the League for race norming in August 2020. Davenport claimed that a doctor initially diagnosed him with dementia, but after the NFL appealed and demanded his test scores get curved using race-normed data, the diagnosis was reversed and his monetary claim was denied. Henry and Davenport’s contention was that the League’s landmark $1 billion concussion settlement doles out less to Black players because of race norming.
Henry and Davenport were denied awards but showed that if they had been White, they would have received their share of the settlement. Instead, they were shut out because of the 19th century logic that, as Black people, their cognitive functioning was probably already impaired before they ever took the field. This contention wasn’t first made by Henry and Davenport. It was the clinicians who evaluate the former players for compensatory damages who blew the whistle. They felt hamstrung by the race norming barometers set forth and admitted to one another that they are implementing a discriminatory process.
Their lawsuit was initially dismissed by Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, the judge overseeing the NFL’s concussion settlement that was reached in 2013. But a group of undeterred NFL families, led by Amy Lewis, the wife of former Washington running back Ken Jenkins, 60, last month dropped 50,000 petitions at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia—where the lawsuit had been thrown out by Judge Brody—demanding equal treatment for Black players.
After medical experts expressed concern regarding the issue, and after the 50,000 petitions were dropped off, Judge Brody took the unusual step of asking a mediator to investigate the issue of race norming and to provide a report of their findings. Unfortunately, the “mediation” called for by the judge would not include representatives for the Black athletes, and instead involve just the League and the courts, quietly scrubbing this practice away from prying eyes.
Lawyers for Black players have asked for details on how the settlement payouts so far have broken along racial lines, but have yet to receive them. They fear the data will never come to light.
The majority of the League’s 20,000 retirees are Black. And only a quarter of the more than 2,000 men who sought awards for early to moderate dementia have qualified under the testing program. Thousands of retired Black professional football players, their families and supporters are demanding an end to the controversial use of race norming to determine which players are eligible for payouts in the NFL’s $1 billion settlement of brain injury claims. The practice of race norming by the League has likely stripped money from possibly hundreds, if not thousands, of players, and may have saved the NFL millions of dollars.
Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL, was open to changing the process. An NFL spokesman said,
"We are committed to eliminating race-based norms in the program . . . . Everyone agrees race-based norms should be replaced, but no off-the-shelf alternative exists and that's why these experts are working to solve this decades-old issue. 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."
But Commissioner Goodell was also quick to say, “The 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.”
While it’s true that the clinicians are not from the NFL, the NFL’s “Baseline Assessment Program” chooses and pays for these “independent clinicians.” Also, the NFL’s concussion settlement program manual recommends clinicians use what the manual calls a “full demographic correction,” where the cognitive score of players is measured up against people of the same “race.”
Given that 74% of the players in the League are Black, it seems morally unconscionable and legally indefensible that when retired players try to claim access to funds resulting from brain damage conditions that are directly related to football, there’s a different standard for them. There's a presumption that they come in at a cognitively lower ranking. A lower baseline.
Harry Edwards, a sociologist and longtime staff consultant for the San Francisco 49ers who has spent a half-century studying the intersection of sports and society, noted that the fact that the NFL would fight a lawsuit by two Black players who say, “Hey, this isn't fair,” shows that there is still significant work to do to fight systemic racism, even in the NFL.
It speaks to far grander problems in a League that depends upon the sacrifice of Black bodies and minds to survive, yet offers up few high-profile off-the-field job opportunities for any Black people, former players or not. The number of Black executives and head coaches combined can be counted on two hands, and the number of Black franchise owners stands at less than one. The NFL's comfort with race norming feels more like a part of a bigger picture than an outdated manual or a clinician’s testimony. It demands nothing short of utter eradication. That a federal judge has called for the NFL to clean this up in the shadows of mediation, away from the eyes of player advocates, only speaks to how repugnant the practice has been.
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I was shocked to learn that the NFL could so blatantly discriminate against retired Black players, denying them equal compensation for damage sustained on the field. Days after the shock wore off, I wondered why I had been so caught off guard. After all, I’ve been writing about racism for over a year now. I have seen systemic racism in all areas of our country—health, education, housing, wealth accumulation, and criminal justice, to name a few. But somehow, in all this time, I have not developed an immunity to the shockwaves of systemic racism. And there seems no vaccine to ward off the heart-crushing realization that, after all these years, we still continue to discriminate against the minorities in this country. It is a sadness that doesn’t shake.
Now I am left wondering:
If our federal government outlawed race norming in 1991, why did the NFL still allow it in 2021? And what other entities are still allowing it?
Who among the NFL higher ups decided to allow race norming? Who knew it was being allowed? Why did no one in the NFL stand up to oppose it?
What influenced folks in the NFL to believe that Blacks have less intellectual capacity than Whites?
This belief, that generally speaking Blacks are less intelligent than Whites, has been baked into the collective American consciousness for centuries. This is the beating heart that keeps racism and White supremacy alive. Clearly as a nation, we have more work to do.