Brain Doctors Treating Black Ex-NFLers Allege Discrimination

The NFL was accused in a lawsuit last year of discriminating against Black former players who file dementia-related claims. But now, a group of neuropsychologists who examine them say the league uses race as a factor in how it looks at who is really suffering from the condition and thus, who gets a payout.

According to ABC News, two Black ex-players — Kevin Henry who was a defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Najeh Davenport, who played running back for the Green Bay Packers and the Steelers — filed a federal lawsuit against the league in August saying it “explicitly and deliberately” discriminated against Black players who have sustained brain injuries or suffer dementia linked to taking hits during their football careers. But the NFL balked at that saying the interpretation of dementia test results is up to the discretion of the clinicians administering the tests.

At least one of those clinicians has contradicted that position, saying in a message obtained by ABC News that was sent in a private online forum: “I don’t think we have the freedom to choose. If we do, apparently many of us have been doing it wrong.”

Others felt responsibility for what they felt was a problem of systemic racism perpetuated by the NFL in discriminating against Black players.

“Especially in the correct [sic] of our current state of affairs, I’m realizing and feeling regretful for my culpability in this inadvertent systemic racism issue,” another clinician wrote. “As a group we could have been better advocates.”

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Still another said that although the neuropsychologists followed guidelines, their profession could have taken more responsibility to the racial ramifications of what they were doing.

“Bottom line is that the norms do discriminate against Black players,” that clinician wrote in the message. “So now what? In this time of reckoning, like many professions, I think we need to look closely at the expected and unexpected ramifications of our practices.”

What the doctors are talking about is a practice called “race-norming,” which supposedly protects against a misdiagnosis. But it assumes because Black players on average start their football careers at a lower level of cognitive functioning than white players, the Black players must show a bigger cognitive drop to get compensation.

In an interview scheduled for the Wednesday edition ABC News’ “Nightline,” Davenport and Henry bluntly said that Black players who are suffering from cognitive disorders get treated differently than white players.

“What the NFL is doing to us right now … when they use a different scale for African-Americans versus any other race?” said Davenport. “That’s literally the definition of systematic racism.”

Henry echoed the sentiment, but more emotionally.

“I just want to be looked at the same way as a white guy,” Henry said. “We bust chops together, bro. We went out together and we played hard together. You know what I mean? It wasn’t a white or Black thing. We lost together. We won together.”

An NFL spokesperson told ABC News that the league has paid more than $800 million in a settlement to date beginning five years ago and that it “relied on widely accepted and long-established cognitive tests and scoring methodologies.”

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The spokesperson also said the settlement “permits, but does not require, independent clinicians to consider race in adjusting retired players’ test scores as they would in their typical practice.” But said the league doesn’t play a role in the examinations of independent clinicians. Challenges to any diagnoses are reviewed by court appointed designees.

After Henry retired from the Steelers he went to work for Coca Cola, but before long he started experiencing headaches, memory loss and depression, according to ABC News, which he believed was the result of 10 concussions he sustained in his career. In 2017, and in 2019 he was tested and was unable to get the compensation he thought he was entitled to, leaving him feeling he was put in a separate category from other players.

“I felt so betrayed and I still feel that way,” said Henry said, Henry who worked for Coca Cola after retiring from the Steelers, but had to stop because he started experiencing headaches, memory loss and depression, according to ABC News.  In 2017, and in 2019 he was tested and was unable to get the compensation he thought he was entitled to, leaving him feeling he was put in a separate category from other players.

“Two different systems,” he said. “How can that be OK?”

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