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Out with Race-Based Brain Testing in the NFL, in with New and Improved Compensation

Max Langhorst

The NFL has assumed less cognitive ability in its former Black players than in any other racial group during brain testing, preventing adequate testing results. Their system, used to test for dementia, was originally developed for two groups of people: Black football players and everyone else. It was done in this separated way in order to account for differences in socioeconomic background, and experts say the system was not intended to demean Black football players. Black players argued that since the testing assumed they had lower cognitive function to begin with, it was harder to show the brain injuries incurred during their time in the league, invalidating their injuries. Because dementia testing offers players the opportunity for monitoring and compensation, the severity of the NFL’s behavior is inexcusable.

After months of court negotiations between the NFL and the lawyers of retired Black NFL players Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry, a proposal for equitable cognitive testing has been drafted. The lawsuit follows the outrage on “race-norming” dementia testing. Although the judge has not approved the proposal, the document holds potential for significant ramifications in the NFL. As the proposal offers the opportunity for test retakes in order to confirm prior diagnoses, the primary goal aims to racially-neutralize and reduce bias in the cognitive tests. Additionally, the proposal reduces the disparity in compensation through concussion funds between Black and White football players. The concussion fund, which was established in 2017, paid out $821 million to 2,000 former players for different brain injuries including: early and advanced dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

The NFL agreed to change their race-based policy in June. Under the new agreement, the NFL does not admit to any wrongdoing and does not release any information about players who have been paid. Retiree Ken Jenkins added his input regarding the NFL’s lack of advocacy and said, “if the new process eliminates race-norming and more people qualify, that's great, [but we] want full transparency of all the demographic information from the NFL — who's applied, who's been paid.”

In approving the proposal, the NFL risks losing money in turn to provide former players adequate reimbursements after their career-ending brain injuries.


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