BURGESS OWENS: The NFL’s ‘Race-Norming’ Scandal Deserves More Scrutiny Than Jon Gruden’s Emails

Richard Schultz/NFLPhotoLibrary

Rep. Burgess Owens Burgess Owens is a former professional football player serving as the U.S. representative for Utah's 4th Congressional District.
Font Size:

As “cancel culture” reaches back over a decade and demands justice for private emails from Jon Gruden, a successful and respected NFL coach, a question still remains: does it have the same intolerance for one of its own?

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, oversaw and organization that for years reportedly denied proper compensation for brain injuries to a large segment of football players based solely on their race. As details emerge about Jim Crow-like testing reminiscent of the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, it would seem Goodell has a lot of explaining to do and cancel culture has some work ahead.

The Tuskegee Experiments spanned from 1932 to 1972 and involved experiments that exclusively targeted black men. Tests were conducted to observe the effects of untreated syphilis. Over 400 black men were studied by denying them penicillin treatment, even though it was the standard therapy by 1947. The results were tragic: 100 men died, 40 wives were infected and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. It was the prevailing belief at the time that there was a physiological difference between black and white people. It was thought that white people would more likely develop neurosyphilis while black people were more likely to sustain cardiovascular damage.

In 2013, a group of NFL players sued the National Football League for allegedly concealing a link between football and a long-term brain injury called CTE. District Judge Anita Brody agreed to a $1 billion settlement to be paid over 65 years.

There was designated in the agreement an uncapped amount in damages for retirees who can demonstrate that they suffer from one of several brain conditions covered by the agreement. CTE is the most prominent form of brain damage in the NFL and can only be diagnosed after death. It has been linked to early dementia, ALS, depression and suicide. Of the 202 former players’ brains that were tested, 177 (or nearly 90 percent) were diagnosed with CTE. Those who had played football longer were statistically more likely to have worse brain damage.

As more black players were denied or offered lower compensation than their white counterparts, an outcry from those suffering from this football-related injury caused a deeper look into the “testing” the NFL was administering. Earlier this year, the NFL finally halted the practice that prevented many black former players from qualifying for the NFL’s billion-dollar settlement.

Using a practice called “race-norming,” a separate algorithm was used to test the intelligence of black players. This separate protocol assumed that black Americans have innately lower cognitive functions compared to white Americans. For the purpose of accessing brain damage for brain injury compensation, this algorithm allegedly made it harder for black former athletes to show an intellectual deficit and, in essence, to qualify.

This racist bias has prevented untold numbers of black former NFL players from receiving proper compensation and access to appropriate health treatments granted to white former NFL players for the same exact cognitive score.

Tracie Canada, writing for the Scientific American, stated “NFL’s Racist ‘Race Norming’ is an Afterlife of Slavery. A statistical manipulation that underpaid Black players in concussion settlements exemplifies American football’s immersion in the legacy of slavery.”

Sociologist Victor Ray stated, “Even with the NFL’s overwhelming financial prominence, race-norming was one way the league could more closely moderate who was eligible (read: worthy) for a settlement. Yet, despite its contemporary uses, race-norming can be traced back to plantation slavery, eugenics efforts globally and a long history of racial science used to justify the belief in inferior racial groups. These misguided scientific endeavors are rooted in an idea that Black people’s bodies are inherently different from white people’s bodies.”

Chris Seeger, the Lead Council for NFL Players, was appointed by Judge Brody. As early as May 2019, Seeger and NFL lawyers were made aware that race-norming was contributing to denials and that the practice might be discriminating against black former players.

Public scrutiny of this practice came only after former NFL players Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry filed a lawsuit against the league in 2020. They charged that “race-norming” prevented former players from qualifying for NFL settlement compensation. They claimed that when they had been mistakenly given the intelligence test set aside for white players, they both qualified for compensation. The NFL demanded that they be tested again. This time when the clinician applied the “full demographic correction” race-norming algorithm, recommended by the program manual, they were denied compensation.

Henry commented, “I felt so betrayed and I still feel that way. Two different systems. How can that be OK?”

Davenport stated, ”When [the NFL] uses a different scale for African-Americans versus any other race, it’s literally the definition of systematic racism.”

This view of black players is nothing new to the NFL. It was during my era, in the 1970’s and 80’s, that the influence of Jim Crow still lingered in NFL leadership. It was pre-supposed at that time that due to their intellectual inferiority black athletes were incapable of playing “white leadership” positions, (i.e. QB, Centers, Middle Linebackers and Free Safeties). It was Al Davis’ Raiders that broke those barriers with a culture that prioritized meritocracy over skin color. It was the Raiders organization that gave the league its first Hispanic QB and winning Super Bowl Champion coach in Tom Flores, the first Hispanic Super Bowl MVP in Jim Plunkett, the first black coach in Art Shell and the first female CEO in Amy Trask.

It should not be surprising that the “woke” NFL has continued to embrace racism that targets only black players. After all, Roger Goodell has allowed divisive politics on the NFL sideline, helmets and during Super Bowl halftime. His most recent attack on American unity has been the implementation of two separate national anthems: one for black Americans and another for white Americans. Though “Separate but Equal” was deemed unconstitutional in our country in the 1950’s, it would appear Goodell’s 2021 NFL has not yet received the memo.

Surprisingly, there has been stone silence by the NFL Players Association, led by Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, regarding the “race-norming” policy. As this protocol has been exposed, thousands of retired black players and their families expected advocacy and backbone from Smith’s union. Instead, Smith saved his vitriol for a 10-year-old email that described physical attributes about him that he personally found offensive and racist. Having spent 10 years on NFL fields and in NFL locker  rooms, I can assure you that Smith has heard much worse insults from other players.

On behalf of the thousands of black Americans who have played the game, maybe the Players Association should ask how the league concluded that the demeaning race-norming algorithm was good for black players or the game. The Players Association should ascertain from the NFL how many black athletes have been denied compensation because of their skin color. Smith should save his selective outrage for the many who have suffered as a consequence of the NFL’s misdiagnosis and outright racism.

Goodell should be forced to consider the black families dealing with fathers and husbands with diminishing cognitive skills, lost jobs, bankruptcies and premature death. If it is true systemic racism that the NFLPA Executive Director Darius Smith wants to address, having a “man-up” conversation with Goodell and standing up for NFL teammates that he once played with might be a good start. An even better start would be to demand the release of all of the emails from Goodell and the NFL leadership since 2014.

If we are going to hold individuals accountable for emails sent a decade ago, we should hold those in higher positions to a higher standard. If a coach is made to resign due to “racist/homophobic” words in an email, the commissioner of the NFL should be fired for years of systemic racism action that I saw up close as a union rep for the NY Jets in the 1970’s. This is what DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA should be demanding. The question remains: Why haven’t they?

Burgess Owens is a former NFL player and Super Bowl Champion. He currently represents Utah’s 4th District in Congress. Learn more at burgess4utah.com