The NFL is racist, part 400

OPINION: The league really did allow Black players to be deemed less intelligent than white players and paid insurance claims based on that notion.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in a file photo from October 2021, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

As the NFL playoffs rage on, I am constantly reminded that there are so many reasons to not be watching. One example is the time the NFL treated Black people as less intelligent than white people. Really. 

This story goes to the core of American racism, where there’s an expectation that Black people are physically superior to whites but also intellectually inferior. They expect us to be strong and fast, to fight and dance and entertain well and to play sports expertly. In anything relating to the body, America expects Black people to be good, but in matters of the mind, America expects Black people to be inferior to white people. They believe we don’t think as fast and as deeply as they do. This is not only dehumanizing, but it’s also a handy justification for racism. Of course, this notion stays in the shadows most of the time, but occasionally, it rears its pointy little head. And won’t you know it, if you sift through the recent history of the NFL, you’ll see it.

In 2015, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, paving the way for a $1 billion settlement between the NFL and former players that could provide payment of up to $5 million each for the long-term impact of concussions and other neurological conditions (although the settlement doesn’t address chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been linked to concussions). The settlement allowed the NFL to evade having to admit what it knew about the impact of concussions, but that’s a separate problem right now. 

In order to qualify for money that would help former players who suffered neurological damage take care of themselves, they had to take a test — they had to prove that they had diminished mental capacity in order to qualify. That seemed fine. It’s the next part that had me screaming mad.

After the players’ cognitive abilities were tested, the settlement’s provisions allowed doctors to judge Black players on a different scale than white players. They were all men with diminished mental capabilities thanks to football, but the NFL was saying the mental decline of the Black players was less than that of the white players because … Black people aren’t as smart to begin with. If Black players didn’t lose as much brainpower as the white guys, then they were paid less — or not at all. Over 4,000 Black players were denied payment because of this policy. Because the league determined that they hadn’t lost enough of their cognitive ability to deserve a payment.  

The NFL was doing what is called “race-norming,” and it didn’t become public that the NFL was doing it until a 2020 lawsuit brought by two former Black players. Their lawyer told the New York Times, “In effect, the settlement, as it has been administered, has a white door and a Black door. Although the neurocognitive tests behind each door are the same, the raw scores for Black and white former players are interpreted differently.”

The concussion fund has reportedly paid out more than $997 million, and lawyers for the Black players say white players were getting double or triple what Black players have been getting.

This is racism in action. This is the myth of Black cognitive inferiority in action. And this is also an example of how even moves that are made with the intention of supporting Black people often end up helping white people even more. The NFL is about 70% Black, so you would think that a concussion settlement for NFL players would largely benefit Black people, but instead, something was injected into the process — “race-norming” — and because of it, Black people were deprived economically because of a racist perception of their cognitive capability.

The NFL’s policy was worked on and carried out by executives, lawyers and doctors — supposedly upstanding people — who would look you in the face and tell you that they’re not racist, they have Black friends and they don’t hate anyone. Yet, their policy helped the NFL keep from paying thousands of Black people what they were rightfully owed, thus depriving thousands of Black families of help paying for dad or grandpa’s medical bills as they fade away from ALS, Parkinson’s or some other head trauma-related issue that came from their time in the NFL. That money that they weren’t paid may have deprived them of funds they could have used to invest or buy a home or help their children start a business. That money, like countless other examples of economic deprivation — from wage theft to appraisal fraud — uses racism to further deprive Black people of the resources we need to grab a little more power for ourselves in this country, which helps white supremacy carry on. Rinse and repeat.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!