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NFL’s ‘race norming’ practice may deny Black players equal compensation for injuries

For a number of former NFL players, the hard hits extend beyond the field. Although the league has settled claims related to concussions and brain injuries, there are questions now as to whether race was used unfairly to determine who got the money. John Yang has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a number of former NFL players, the hard hits extend beyond the field. The league has settled claims related to concussions and brain injuries, but there are questions now as to whether race was used unfairly to determine who got the money.

    John Yang has the story.

  • Kevin Henry:

    This is the year we went to the Super Bowl.

  • John Yang:

    Kevin Henry loves football and the eight years he spent as a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman.

  • Kevin Henry:

    I love the toughness of the game, the roughness, the fame, the glory, everything that goes along with it, all the accolades.

  • John Yang:

    But it also meant at least 10 concussions during games, more in practice. Now, 20 years after retirement, it means headaches, depression, mood swings and memory loss. He's unable to hold a full-time job and struggles with the tasks of daily life.

  • Kevin Henry:

    My body won't let me do the types of things that I want to do. My mind won't let me focus.

  • John Yang:

    His wife, Pamela, helps him with the physical pain, but can only watch the mental toll.

  • Kevin Henry:

    You can't tell just by seeing us on the street. You know what I mean? We look big, strong, healthy, you know? You can't see inside of our brain, though.

  • Pamela Brack-Henry:

    This guy is a very sweet guy. He has a very big heart, not easy-tempered, now is easy-tempered. It's a change. His mind is not what it used to be. It's just sad to see somebody that you love basically just falling apart.

  • John Yang:

    You hear Pamela talk about how she saw you change. Were you aware of the changes in yourself as it was going on?

  • Kevin Henry:

    I know I'm not myself.

    I know what I can be. I know what I could be, and I just need some help.

  • John Yang:

    In 2013, the National Football League agreed to a landmark settlement to compensate former players who suffered brain injuries. When Henry applied and took a neurological exam, he was rejected.

    In a lawsuit, Henry said it was because the raw exam results were adjusted to account for race, a practice called race-norming. Scientists say race-norming was intended primarily to prevent healthy African Americans and members of other socially disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups from being mistakenly classified as having brain disorders because of those social factors.

    It was relatively commonplace for decades, but now is increasingly being reexamined. Based on psychological research, scientists say, it establishes a lower cognitive baseline for Blacks than for whites. As a consequence, to qualify for compensation, Black players have to perform worse on cognitive tests than white players.

  • Cy Smith:

    Essentially, they're asked to go through either a white door or a Black door.

  • John Yang:

    Cy Smith, Henry's attorney, says the NFL is using race-norming to limit how much money it has to pay out.

  • Cy Smith:

    You could take two players who take a battery of tests on the same day. They could have grown up in the same town. They could be the same age. They could have gone to the same high school and college and played the same number of years, And they could get the same scores on those tests that same day, but the Black player wouldn't get benefits and the white player would.

  • John Yang:

    Henry wants the NFL to release demographic information about the players who have gotten benefits.

  • Kevin Henry:

    There should be — at least 70 percent of those guys should be Black. It's is a 70 percent league, right, Black league? Let's see the percentages.

  • John Yang:

    While the NFL turned down an interview request, in court filings, the league said use of race-based adjustments is discretionary.

    But the guidebook for clinicians evaluating players for settlement benefits says: "Use of the full demographic correction is recommended."

    And the league has appealed awards to Black players that haven't used race-norming. What's more, Dr. Daniel Kantor, a neurologist who evaluated players for settlement claims from 2017 to 2019, said that scores that did not factor in race had little chance of approval.

  • Daniel Kantor:

    Why shouldn't it be more about who these players are in terms of what schools they went to, how they did in school, what other subjects they studied, how they did on standardized testing? Those are other things that we can take into account.

    The difference here is that the NFL is saying, well, if you do, we're going to reject that claim. Here, we have a prime example of a system that was racist, and we should all be standing up and saying, enough is enough.

  • John Yang:

    Kantor says he left the program out of frustration.

    Last month, federal Judge Anita Brody ordered the attorneys who negotiated the original settlement to meet with the court to address the concerns relating to the race-norming issue.

    Attorney Christopher Seeger, who negotiated the settlement for players, told the court he would work to "ensure the elimination of demographic norms that adjust for race."

    Lawyers for Henry and other Black players want to be part of the talks, too, saying Seeger "has not and cannot adequately represent their interests."

  • Attorney Cy Smith:

  • Cy Smith:

    You need to have Black players be given a seat at the table. That, we think, is a fatal flaw in the way that this mediation that's been ordered is undergoing.

  • John Yang:

    There's no timetable for the judge to rule on the requests.

    Kevin Henry and his wife say this is about more than just money.

  • Pamela Brack-Henry:

    It's heartbreaking. You can make decisions in the — in a boardroom, but you're not living in a household with these players. I just want fairness. I just want them to be treated fairly. That's all.

  • Kevin Henry:

    Out of sight, out of mind, that's the sentiment that I feel. I just want my — I want my dignity back, man. I feel like — I feel like that's been taken away from me.

  • John Yang:

    As, together, they struggle daily with the painful legacy of the game Henry still loves so much.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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