What do medical experts say about Black NFL players’ lawsuit claiming discrimination on dementia diagnoses

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Najeh Davenport, one of the two former players suing the NFL. Credit: Tom Lynn/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The question of adjusting cognitive test scores arose this week when two Black former NFL players filed a lawsuit alleging that the league uses racially based standards for dementia that make it harder for Black players to qualify for payouts given to those who suffered work-related brain injuries.

The suit said the NFL uses “race norming,” which assumes that Black players, on average, start with lower cognitive functioning. That means that Black players must perform worse than whites on tests of dementia to qualify for the diagnosis, the lawyers said.

According to the New York Times, the league said its statistical techniques were meant to account for demographic differences in age, education, and race.

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Mijail D. Serruya, a Jefferson Health neurologist, said of racial norming, “I have never heard of that,” adding that race is not well defined. Because changes in various kinds of thinking are normal as we grow older, age is commonly considered during cognitive testing. So is education, he said.

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[Penn Memory Center’s Jason] Karlawish said there are norms that consider race for some tests. “In America, what we find is there’s a tragic correlation between race and performance on cognitive testing,” he said. Comparing years of education may not adequately reflect disparities in the quality of education that Black and white people received.

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