‘I am sorry for the pain this caused Black former NFL players and families’: How ‘race-norming’ brain injuries cost players tens of millions of dollars

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Credit: Digitalskillet/Getty Images
Credit: Digitalskillet/Getty Images

When the settlement in the landmark NFL class-action concussion litigation was finalized in 2017, and the league agreed to pay sums as high as $5 million to former players diagnosed with brain diseases linked to the sport, [Rick] Cunningham seemed like a strong candidate for a quick payout. A doctor had first diagnosed him with an early level of dementia in 2015, when he was just 48.

But the firm hired by the NFL and the players’ lawyers to oversee settlement payouts denied Cunningham’s first claim in 2018, citing a series of alleged problems with his diagnosis. 

The doctor had failed to apply the appropriate “racial corrections,” the league argued, to scores on several tests of Cunningham’s cognitive function — a practice known in neuropsychology as “race-norming.” The doctor had curved some of Cunningham’s scores as if he were White. Had the doctor applied “African-American normative corrections,” the NFL’s lawyer argued, Cunningham would not have qualified for a payment.

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“I am sorry for the pain this has caused Black former players and their families. While we had fought back against the NFL’s efforts to mandate the use of ‘race norms,’ we failed to appreciate the frequency in which some neuropsychologists were inappropriately applying these adjustments,” [lawyer Chris] Seeger said.

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