NFL Concussion Lawsuits Demonstrate Racial Bias in Science


The first week of the 2020 National Football League (NFL) season occurred amid a grow­ing social justice movement in pro­fes­sion­al sport. While other ath­letes protested police violence and honoured Black victims, the NFL games includ­ed a “moment of unity” against racism. Slogans “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” featured prominently.

Meanwhile, two former play­ers, Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry, have accused the NFL of discriminating against Black players seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion through the league’s concussion settlement. Both men — who are Black — allege race-based adjust­ments to neu­rocog­ni­tive test scores result­ed in their inel­i­gi­bil­i­ty for demen­tia-relat­ed pay­ments.

Having stud­ied responses to brain injury and degenerative brain diseases among former NFL players, we acknowl­edge this latest crit­i­cism is only one of sev­er­al prob­lems with the league’s con­cus­sion set­tle­ment. Davenport and Henry’s com­plaint, how­ev­er, high­lights inequal­i­ties beyond work­place com­pen­sa­tion. It is an exam­ple of how racial sci­ence con­tin­ues to harm Black people by uphold­ing racist beliefs about white supe­ri­or­i­ty.

If Black lives matter, sci­ence — like the crim­i­nal jus­tice system — needs to reckon with the fact that its struggles with racism are not a thing of the past.

NFL con­cus­sion set­tle­ment

In response to a class action law­suit filed on behalf of more than 4,500 ex-play­ers in 2012, the NFL agreed to a set­tle­ment of US$765 million in 2014. The final agree­ment allowed for up to US$1 billion in com­pen­sa­tion for retired play­ers with seri­ous med­ical con­di­tions linked to repeat­ed head trauma.

The set­tle­ment has been criticized for a vari­ety of rea­sons. It pre­clud­ed fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion into the NFL’s con­duct and deliv­ered a rel­a­tive­ly small award com­pared to the league’s annual rev­enue.

More prob­lems arose when ex-play­ers began filing claims. Revelations about conflicts of interest, predatory lenders targeting applicants and significant payment delays came to light.

To date, retired play­ers have received around $720 mil­lion for neu­rocog­ni­tive prob­lems, includ­ing more than $300 mil­lion for demen­tia. However, more than two-thirds of the approx­i­mate­ly 3,000 demen­tia-relat­ed claims have been denied. Davenport and Henry’s claims raise ques­tions about how racial biases may con­tribute to the low rate of demen­tia-relat­ed awards.

Scientific dis­crim­i­na­tion

Davenport and Henry’s legal com­plaint describes “a dis­crim­i­na­to­ry test­ing regime” where doc­tors can apply dif­fer­ent base­line stan­dards:

Black former play­ers have been auto­mat­i­cal­ly assumed, through a sta­tis­ti­cal manip­u­la­tion called ‘race-norm­ing,’ to have start­ed with worse cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing than white former play­ers.

The use of race-norm­ing in neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy seeks to account for his­tor­i­cal trends show­ing Black people may have lower aver­age scores on cog­ni­tive tests than white people. The ratio­nale for cre­at­ing lower bench­mark scores for Black people is to pre­vent them from being sub­ject to over­diag­no­sis of cog­ni­tive impair­ment.

Race-norm­ing adjusts for racial biases within the cog­ni­tive tests, but it does not eliminate them. The prac­tice gloss­es over the diversity of experiences and can per­pet­u­ate sweep­ing ideas about inher­ent dif­fer­ences between racial groups.

In the NFL’s case, the lower aver­age base­line makes it harder for Black award appli­cants to demon­strate they have suf­fered severe cog­ni­tive impair­ment com­pared to their white coun­ter­parts. The com­plaint empha­sizes Davenport and Henry would have qual­i­fied for awards had this race-based require­ment not been in place. Four U.S. lawmakers have written to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, express­ing con­cerns that the assess­ment process vio­lates equal pro­tec­tion require­ments.

Challenging racial sci­ence

The issues in the NFL con­cus­sion awards reflect broad­er con­cerns around the misuse of race in med­i­cine and sci­ence. In early September, a letter pub­lished in Science called on the U.S. National Institutes of Health to address the misguided tendency to analyze race categories as if they are indicators of inherent racial differences. The focus on race over­looks how racism inter­acts with other inequal­i­ties.

Environmental, social and struc­tur­al dis­par­i­ties — not bio­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics — are dri­vers of poorer health out­comes in Black, Indigenous and other com­mu­ni­ties of colour. By using the cat­e­go­ry of race to stand in for cul­tur­al, socioe­co­nom­ic and edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ences, the NFL’s base­line for mea­sur­ing neu­rocog­ni­tive damage is an inac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dif­fer­ences between groups of play­ers. It is an instance of “biosocial determinism,” which mis­rep­re­sents how soci­etal con­di­tions affect dis­crep­an­cies in brain health and func­tion.

The con­cus­sion award assess­ments demon­strate how sci­ence can but­tress decep­tive­ly simple bio­log­i­cal expla­na­tions and down­play the impact of sys­temic inequal­i­ties.

Why sport mat­ters

Sport has been — and con­tin­ues to be — an influ­en­tial space in which race-based claims have shaped per­cep­tions of ath­letes’ bodies and their abil­i­ties.

Myths about the bio­log­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty (and intel­lec­tu­al short­com­ings) of Black ath­letes influ­ence media coverage, player scouting and evaluation practices. “Stacking” Black play­ers into dif­fer­ent posi­tions than white play­ers is still common in foot­ball.

Sport sci­ence has long bolstered mis­guid­ed beliefs by offer­ing measures that seem­ing­ly val­i­date cul­tur­al stereo­types about racial dif­fer­ence. Davenport and Henry’s legal com­plaint high­lights how the NFL con­tin­ues to use racial sci­ence even as the league claims to pro­mote sup­port racial jus­tice.

The Conversation

Matt Ventresca, Postdoctoral Associate, Department of Communication, Media, and Film, University of Calgary and Kathryn Henne, Professor and Director, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters

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