Racism in Sports: Part One

Sports dominate society in various cultural, social, economic and political forms. They provide a source of unity and entertainment for families, communities and societies. From international to collegiate level, individuals involved both on and off of the playing field are extremely important in shaping our society and leaving their unique mark on the world. While the public eye gets the latest updates on player statistics and team wins and losses; there is a lot of systematic oppression that parallels the excitement and fervor in the sports world. From inadequate health and financial compensation for athletes and retirees, to prejudiced media representation for colored folks, and finally, the lack of career opportunities presented for people of color in the media coverage industry; the sports world lacks the unity and meaningful support seemingly depicted in the media. To truly reach these ideals, it’s important to acknowledge these current limitations within. In this series, I will be addressing the latest inequalities presented in the sports world; beginning with the NFL’s “race norming”.

Race Norming Continues in the NFL . . .

The NFL has abused the ability to collect demographic factors, using this as a weapon against black players seeking medical benefits. Cognitive tests used to qualify players for receiving such benefits are scored based on the normative scores of their demographics. Setting black and white athletes apart, the baseline scores for qualifying black athletes was significantly lower. Black athletes suffering from dementia and concussion injuries have struggled to qualify for these benefits because of this issue, which gives an overwhelming amount of players false negative scores. This is not a mistake from the NFL’s part, as they are the ones whom hire and provide experts with guidelines that make race-based decisions inevitable.

The first time this issue has been called into attention, resulted in a “settlement plan” in 2021. The process began when players Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry reached a settlement back in 2019. The NFL promised to recompensate those whom were unfairly denied benefits and to retire the practice altogether.

But it didn’t stop there..

Now, in September 29, 2023, retirees Stacey Bailey and Eric Curry have called the NFL out for their continued practice of race norming. They both suffer from injuries that resulted in cognitive impairment such as memory loss, with diagnosis’ dating back to 2020. While in need of medical benefits, their medical needs were underestimated (categorized as mild) by the NFL’s medical benefits program with the use of demographic statistics undermining their needs.

“When race is used at either step in this process, the assumption is that a Black player started at a lower cognitive baseline. Therefore, a Black player with the same cognitive scores as a White player is assumed to have suffered less cognitive impairment. This policy has consequences for approximately 70% of NFL players who identify as Black.” –Katherine L. Possin, 2022

While demographic factors continue to be used for these issues, the only true way to conduct this is with one-on-one sessions with certified, third party neuropsychologists. It is also imperative that we diversify the groups that are in charge of providing these benefits, since the majority of them are people whom do not suffer from the affects of race-norming.

  1. Possin, K. L., Tsoy, E., & Windon, C. C. (2021, April 1). Perils of race-based norms in cognitive testing: The case of former NFL players. JAMA neurology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8218717/ 
  2. Press, T. A. (2021, October 21). NFL agrees to end race-based brain testing in $1b settlement on concussions. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/10/20/1047793751/nfl-concussion-settlement-race-norming-cte#:~:text=Hourly%20News-,NFL%20agrees%20to%20end%20race%2Dbased%20brain%20testing%20in%20%241,players%20to%20win%20dementia%20awards 
  3. Harper Sports (2018) – USC race and Equity Center. (n.d.-b). https://race.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Pub-2-Harper-Sports-Report.pdf 
  4. Published by mapickard                View all posts by mapickard, et al. “NFL Benefit Plans Still Use Race-Norming.” Ublawsportsforum.Com, 24 Oct. 2023, ublawsportsforum.com/2023/10/24/nfl-benefit-plans-still-use-race-norming/.