The NFL said Wednesday it would stop the practice of “race-norming,” a disputed neurological evaluation method that assumes Black players have lower cognitive function, when it came to determining who would receive awards in the league’s $1 billion settlement of brain-injury claims.

Dr. Katherine Possin, a neurology professor at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, called for the NFL to end the practice in December. Possin wrote a widely cited perspective in JAMA Neurology saying the use of race-norming was imprecise and perpetuated systemic racism in the way it was being used by the NFL. By assuming former Black players have a lower cognitive baseline, it has made it harder for those players to prove they have brain trauma and qualify for a settlement. Blacks’ scores on cognitive test were adjusted for their race, meaning they had to post lower scores than whites to receive a payout.

Race-norming, as used in the concussion lawsuits, assumes Blacks have lower cognitive function because of societal factors such as access to health care, education and economic background. The practice dates back about 40 years ago when it was used to account for racial basis in aptitude tests that were part of federal job applications. It began in the medical field more than two decades ago, partly to prevent the overdiagnosis of cognitive disorders among Blacks. It was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

“Race-norming is a crude proxy for lifelong social experience,” Possin said Thursday. “And we have to remember how crude it is. And when the consequences are as big as determining whether a retired football player who has experienced cognitive decline, depression and behavioral symptoms, whether they will be eligible for a monetary award, I think we have to do this with caution. We have to look at the potential harms of this imprecise practice.”

On Wednesday, the NFL agreed. But a statement the league issued pledging to eliminate “rase-based norms in the program and more broadly in the neuropsychological community” came more than nine months after two former players, Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport, filed a lawsuit against the league. The players alleged race-norming prevented them from receiving settlement payouts. Davenport said he was diagnosed with dementia, but the NFL appealed and asked for his test score to be adjusted using race-norming.

U.S. District Judge Anita Brody dismissed the case, but she appointed a mediator to investigate the issue, which helped bring it out of the shadows. Members of Congress subsequently requested data from the NFL, and wives of retired Black players sent Brody a petition with about 50,000 signatures, demanding the elimination of race-norming. ABC News had an investigative report in which it obtained an email that one doctor involved in the program wrote to another: “I’m realizing and feeling regretful for my culpability in this inadvertent systemic racism issue. As a group we could have been better advocates.”

The NFL had noted it used independent clinicians in the program. However, the league’s program manual recommended those clinicians employ a “full demographic correction” to account for race. The NFL said Wednesday it would replace race-norming with testing protocols that would be proposed by a panel of experts that would include three Black doctors. The league also pledged to review denied claims of Black players in the suit that includes more than 20,000 ex-players. The NFL has not disclosed how many Black players potentially have been impacted. It also has not disclosed how the payouts, currently totaling more than $800 million, have broken down along racial lines.

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