Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Lawyers Battle Over 'Race-Norming' In NFL Dementia Tests

Doug Mills
Minnesota Vikings players bring down Washington wide receiver Art Monk during an NFL game in 1992. Monk was one of the lead plaintiffs in the $1 billion settlement with the NFL over brain injuries among former players in 2015.

The court-appointed lead lawyer for thousands of retired players suing the NFL pledged Monday to try to remove race as a factor in dementia testing, but lawyers for Black players demanded he release the data on payouts by race in the $1 billion concussion settlement.

They argue that Black men are being denied awards that average more than $500,000 because of testing methods that assume Black people have lower cognitive function than white people.

That makes it harder to show they’ve suffered neurological damage linked to NFL concussions.

Lawyers challenging the “race-norming” practice insist they need to be part of the latest round of mediation with the NFL to ensure fairness for Black players, who make up the majority of the 20,000-member class of retired players.

“The devil is always in the details,” said lawyer Cy Smith, whose civil rights challenge to the race-norming practice was thrown out this month by the judge overseeing the NFL case, Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody. He has appealed her decision to a federal circuit court.

“It’s just very hard after the fact to make sure that Black players are carefully represented if you don’t have a seat at the table,” Smith said.

Christopher Seeger, whom Brody appointed to serve as class counsel for the players, clawed back at Smith’s firm in a caustic memo filed Monday. He insisted he could resolve the race-norming issue — which Smith and others say developed on his watch — without their help.

Seeger, in the filing, agreed to seek “purely race-neutral demographic norms” and “investigate whether any class member has been disadvantaged by race norming.”

“The process is not simple, and it will take time. Demographic norms that adjust for race, when clinically appropriate, have been used for decades and are generally accepted by experts in the field of neuropsychology,” he wrote.

He stopped short of pledging a wholesale review of the tests scored to date. About 570 of the 2,000 retirees filing dementia claims so far, or 28%, have gotten awards. And thousands more were tested but never filed claims because their scores did not appear to qualify them for payments.

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy did not immediately return a message seeking comment on whether the NFL would agree to eliminate race-norming in the testing and review prior claims and test scores.

Smith and others believe the claims administrator could fairly quickly sort the data and payouts by race.

There has long been acrimony in the case between Seeger and dozens of other lawyers involved over terms of the settlement and the fact the judge awarded him more than $51 million of the $112 million in legal fees.

He joined the case after the first concussion lawsuits were filed against the NFL in 2011. Two years later, he helped steer a surprise $765 million settlement that kept the NFL from disclosing in court what it knew about concussions and head injuries. The cap was later lifted, and the payments, now nearing $800 million, are expected to reach more than $1 billion.

Start your morning with today’s news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. Sign up for WESA’s Inbox Edition newsletter.

To make informed decisions, the public must receive unbiased truth.

As Southwestern Pennsylvania’s only independent public radio news and information station, we give voice to provocative ideas that foster a vibrant, informed, diverse and caring community.

WESA is primarily funded by listener contributions. Your financial support comes with no strings attached. It is free from commercial or political influence…that’s what makes WESA a free vital community resource. Your support funds important local journalism by WESA and NPR national reporters.

You give what you can, and you get news you can trust.
Please give now to continue providing fact-based journalism — a monthly gift of just $5 or $10 makes a big difference.