PHILADELPHIA – Hundreds of men whose medical tests were redone to eliminate race bias are now eligible for awards, two years after a pair of former players sued the NFL over its treatment of black retirees in the league’s $1 billion concussion settlement.
The newly approved payout, announced in a report Friday, is a victory for NFL families in a decades-long legal saga. The 2020 lawsuit found that dementia tests were “race-biased” — adjusted for assumptions that blacks have lower cognitive baseline scores. Changes to the settlement made last year are to make the trials race-blind.
The new results will add millions to the NFL’s payouts for concussion-linked brain injuries. A league spokesman did not return a phone call Friday or respond to an email sent in recent weeks seeking comment on the rescoring.
Of the 646 black men who were retested, nearly half now qualify for dementia awards. Of the 61 classified as having early to moderate dementia, the average award tops $600,000, while nearly 250 more have mild dementia and will receive up to $35,000 in enhanced medical testing and treatment, according to the claims administrator’s report.
Former players, lawyers and advocates say they will get the word out to more players who could receive the award.
“Our work has produced some good results and opened a lot of eyes,” said Ken Jenkins, a former running back who, along with his wife, petitioned a federal judge to oversee the settlement for the change and urged the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. inquiry “Now we’re really focused on getting a lot of players who deserve compensation.”
This first group of players had the best chance of success because they would have otherwise passed the testing protocol and qualified if they were white. Thousands of other black ex-athletes can ask for rescores or retests, but their cases cannot be based on earlier results of dementia, validity and impairment tests. About 70% of active players and 60% of living retirees are black.
The original test algorithm adjusted scores by race — as a rough proxy for one’s socioeconomic background — went unnoticed for years until lawyers for former Pittsburgh Steelers players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport sued the league. Factors such as age, education and race have long been used in neurology to help diagnose dementia, but experts say the formula was not meant to be used to determine payouts in a legal case.
“How can you think that in 2022, another human will come out of the womb with reduced cognitive abilities? It’s just impossible to believe that this could be true,” Jenkins said. “It’s indescribable.”
Advocates fear that many former athletes don’t know they can be rescored or retested, especially if they have cognitive problems and live alone.
“Men who are homeless, men who originally signed up but their cognitive function has changed, men who are divorced or separated — we’re going to look for them,” said Amy Lewis, Jenkins’ wife.
The couple, once critical of Class Counsel Chris Seeger’s response to the issue, are now working with him to get the word out.
Seager, the lead attorney for nearly 20,000 retired players who settled with the NFL, has apologized for initially failing to see the extent of racial bias. “Make sure the NFL pays them every nickel they want,” he said in a recent interview.
The league recently surpassed $1 billion in approved claims. However, appeals and audits mean the actual payouts are behind that number and are around $916 million. That includes awards for four other compensable diagnoses: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and death before April 2015 including chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
As critics grapple with Thornier’s dementia claims, the process has slowed and audits and appeals have intensified.
“Their mantra is deny, deny, delay until you die,” said wide receiver James Pruitt, 58, who played for Indianapolis and Miami from 1986 to 1991.
After his NFL retirement, Pruitt became a teacher and middle school principal in Palm Beach County, Florida. But in 2010, in his mid-40s, the district asked him to step down. He could no longer perform his duties.
Eventually, he stopped calling friends from his playing days.
“I don’t pass out, and I don’t remember a lot of things. I’ve been told I repeat things,” he said. “So whole to me