NFL’s ‘racist’ algorithm assumes blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites

NFL’s ‘racist’ algorithm assumes blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites
Skull x-ray (Image: toubibe / Pixabay)

By K. Walker

There appears to be “systemic racism” lurking just below the surface of the “woke” National Football League. This is ironic for a league has pledged $250 million to “combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans.”

According to Insurance Journal, the NFL is using a scoring system to assess cognitive impairment when paying out brain injury settlements that assumes that black men start with lower cognitive skills.

Thousands of retired Black professional football players, their families and supporters are demanding an end to the controversial use of “race-norming” to determine which players are eligible for payouts in the NFL’s $1 billion settlement of brain injury claims, a system experts say is discriminatory.

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Former Washington running back Ken Jenkins, 60, and his wife Amy Lewis on Friday delivered 50,000 petitions demanding equal treatment for Black players to Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia, who is overseeing the massive settlement. Former players who suffer dementia or other diagnoses can be eligible for a payout.

Under the settlement, however, the NFL has insisted on using a scoring algorithm on the dementia testing that assumes Black men start with lower cognitive skills. They must therefore score much lower than whites to show enough mental decline to win an award. The practice, which went unnoticed until 2018, has made it harder for Black former players to get awards.

The league found itself inundated with claims for brain injury after it was sued in 2011 for hiding what it knew about the link between concussions and brain damage. Rather than face lawsuit after lawsuit, the league agreed to pay out $765 million over 65 years for certain diagnoses, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The claims poured in and the NFL began to challenge them.

In the appeal to a claim made by Najeh Davenport, a former running back who played for the Packers, Steelers, and Colts, the NFL claimed that Davenport’s doctor hadn’t used “full demographic norms” in his cognitive assessment — by which the league meant factoring in age, education, gender, and race.

Davenport’s doctor responded, “I remain unsure what you are talking about. He was done using standard norms like everyone else. Using different racial standards is indeed discriminatory and illegal. We stand by our scores.”

Legal scholars reviewed the appeal and rejected that race-norming was mandatory under the settlement, but did say that Davenport’s doctor would have to explain if he normally used them or waived the metric in order for Davenport to get a payout.

“Using race-specific norms can be enormously consequential, and the adjustments may often make the difference in a clinician’s determination of cognitive impairment and a determination of normal functioning for retired NFL players seeking benefits,” wrote special masters David A. Hoffman and Wendell E. Pritchett.

That’s when Davenport and Kevin Henry, another former Pittsburgh Steeler, filed a civil rights lawsuit to learn how often black players were denied payouts. It also exposed the league’s use of “race-norming” in cognitive assessments.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy has declined to comment on the issue in the past, and did not immediately return an email seeking comment Friday.

The majority of the league’s 20,000 retirees are Black. And only a quarter of the more than 2,000 men who sought awards for early to moderate dementia have qualified under the testing program. Lawyers for Black players have asked for details on how the $800 million in settlement payouts so far have broken along racial lines, but have yet to receive them.

Race norming is sometimes used in medicine as a rough proxy for socioeconomic factors that can affect someone’s health. Experts in neurology said the way it’s used in the NFL settlement is too simplistic and restrictive, and has the effect of systematically discriminating against Black players.

“Because every Black retired NFL player has to perform lower on the test to qualify for an award than every white player. And that’s essentially systematic racism in determining these payouts,” said Katherine Possin, a neurology professor at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center.

The league has paid out other major settlements where all claimants were treated equally, such as the payouts related to the 9/11 terror attack and the Boston Marathon bombing.

According to the Associated Press:

Race-based adjustments for neurology — known as “Heaton norms” — were designed in the early 1990s by Dr. Robert Heaton to estimate how socioeconomic factors affect someone’s health. They are widely used, but in recent years, scientists in the field have begun to recognize the limitations of the normative comparison groups they have used for years.

The small sample group of Blacks Heaton chose to create his adjustment protocol came entirely from San Diego, a military town where the Black population hardly reflected the diversity of Blacks across the U.S. The racial classifications are also binary — Black or white — even though hundreds of NFL retirees, and millions of Americans, identify as mixed race.

So, it seems the entire scale was built on a faulty foundation that didn’t use a representative sample.

It’s a good thing that the NFL has some deep pockets, because it looks like they might have to pay out mucho dinero in the next few years.

Cross-posted at ClashDaily

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