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Several clinicians who examine former NFL players for concussion settlement payouts fear the league's evaluation protocols discriminate against black players, ABC News reported Wednesday.
Two former NFL players, Pittsburgh defensive end Kevin Henry and running back Najeh Davenport, have sued the NFL, in which 70% of players are black, claiming the league "explicitly and deliberately" discriminates against black players filing dementia-related claims.
"I just want to be looked at the same way as a white guy," Henry told ABC News. "We went out together and played hard together. Know what I mean? It wasn't a white or black thing."
At issue is "race-norming," a method used by scientists to prevent overdiagnosis of cognitive impairment in minority communities that when applied to the NFL concussion settlement makes it harder for players to prove cognitive decline.
When players file a compensation claim, they are given a series of tests to measure cognitive function against a baseline norm. If a player's results are far enough below the norm, he is eligible for compensation.
But the norm is lower for black players than white ones when race is made a factor, creating a tougher standard for black players to qualify for payouts.
"I felt so betrayed and I still feel that way," Henry told ABC. "Two different systems? How can that be OK. Why should that be OK?"
The NFL settlement manual recommends a "full demographic correction" that includes age, gender, education and race, according to the report.
In e-mails from clinicians reviewed by ABC News, there were great concerns about being forced to use race as a factor in determining eligibility for payouts.
"I don't think we have the freedom to choose," a neuropsychologist wrote. "If we do, apparently many of us have been doing it wrong."
Another wrote about concern over "racial inequity" and said, "I'm realizing and feeling regretful for my culpability in this inadvertent systemic racism issue."
A third spoke of "required reliance on these norms" but concluded "bottom line is that the norms do discriminate against Black players... we need to look closely at the expected and unexpected ramifications of our practices."
The NFL disputed the report's findings, noting the settlement was agreed upon in 2013 "by all parties, with the assistance of expert neuropsychological clinicians and approved by the courts more than five years ago" and "relied on widely accepted and long-established cognitive tests and scoring methodologies."
"The settlement seeks to provide accurate examinations to retired players," an NFL spokesperson told ABC News. "And thus permits, but does not require, independent clinicians to consider race in adjusting retired players' test scores as they would in their typical practice."
The NFL spokesman also said that league parties play no role in the clinical exams.
ABC said that about 1,200 claims have been paid for more than $800 million from about 3,000 made, but the NFL has not released details, including race, on those who have received payments.