Brooke Vaughn began noticing dramatic behavioral changes in her husband, Clarence, who played in two Super Bowls for the Washington Football Team, about eight years ago. She was startled by them and knew something was dramatically wrong.
Instead of Brooke and her husband getting the needed care for Clarence, and a helping hand from the NFL, they would spend years navigating the thorny maze that is systemic racism. But it’s not the systemic racism you may be thinking of.
It was another form, a practice called race-norming.
After the historic concussion settlement in 2013, the NFL started using race-norming to minimize payouts from the agreement, which was initially estimated at $765 million, according to wives and lawyers who have sued the NFL over the practice. Potentially thousands of Black NFL players were discriminated against, lawyers explain, because the NFL used different scoring curves during dementia-related exams, one for Black players and one for white players. The NFL is approximately 70 percent Black.
Race-norming in the concussion case, lawyers say, is essentially assigning a lower score to Black players during dementia-related exams, as opposed to white players, in order to reject the claims from Black players, and either not pay them, or reduce payments, thus potentially saving the NFL hundreds of millions, and possibly billions of dollars, lawyers say.
The NFL denies any claim of discrimination. The league acknowledged in a statement to USA TODAY Sports that race-norming was used but it’s “committed to helping find alternative testing techniques that will lead to diagnostic accuracy without employing race-based norms.”
The claims of some players are currently going through a dizzying series of court challenges, but wives of the players, the players themselves and lawyers representing them, say the bottom line, to them, is that for years the NFL betrayed Black players.
While players and lawyers are battling on one front, the wives of players are fighting on another. In many cases, their fight is obviously more personal since they often care for ailing husbands.
“What’s most despicable about this race-norming is racism stems from ignorance,” said Brooke, who is white, to USA TODAY Sports. “They are leveraging intentional racism to keep their pockets full. They are perpetuating racism to make money. That racism trickles down and fuels systemic racism. The NFL is helping to keep racism going.”
“I’m going to keep fighting,” she said, “because my husband, and these players, are worth fighting for.”
The NFL won’t say how many players were race-normed so getting the exact number is difficult. However, a lawyer for the players said that potentially several thousand Black players were impacted.
“Over 5,600 players have completed both parts of Baseline Assessment Program testing under the settlement, and well over half of them are Black,” said attorney Cy Smith, partner at Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington, D.C., who sued the NFL for race-norming on behalf of former players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport. “We know that the vast majority of Black players had their scores race-normed. This means that thousands of Black players were subjected to discrimination based on race-norming, and many of them would have qualified for benefits if their scores hadn’t been manipulated.”
Those numbers don’t include the thousands of retired players who participated in a separate part of the settlement called the Monetary Award Fund, which would only add to these numbers, said Smith.
Judge Anita Brody of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed Henry and Davenport’s lawsuit but she wrote that “the Court, however, remains concerned” about the race-norming used by the NFL.
The wives of NFL players are an important part of this story because in many ways they have been the most persistent fighters against the use of race-norming by the league, and have started to become more outspoken about the issue.
“We can speak when our husbands don’t want to, or can’t because of their injuries,” said Brooke.
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Fighting the NFL’s ‘hypocrisy’
To some of the wives, the race-norming story exposes the hypocrisy of a sport that pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to fight systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd, when Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a videotaped message that Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, Black former players were subjugated to race-norming.
“The NFL pledged $250 million to fight systemic racism,” said Amy Lewis, wife of former running back Ken Jenkins, who played in the NFL from 1982 to 1986. “That’s like having Bernie Madoff head the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission).”
“You can’t put on this public face about caring about systemic racism,” said Lewis, who is white, to USA TODAY Sports, “and then behind the scenes, push institutional racism when no one is looking.”
The NFL released a lengthy statement to USA TODAY Sports which, in part, says the league is currently searching for alternative testing techniques without using race-norming.
“The Settlement Program is committed to paying every legitimate claim,” the NFL’s statement said. “To date, the NFL has paid nearly $800 million in claims to retired players and their families.
“There is no merit to the claim of discrimination. The settlement program places claims administration and diagnostic testing in the hands of independent professionals. The testing methodology was developed by leading medical and scientific experts advising class counsel on behalf of the settlement class and the NFL and that methodology was based on standard medical and neuropsychological techniques widely used in leading practices. The availability of demographic adjustments was designed to avoid misdiagnosis of healthy individuals as cognitively impaired.
“The NFL nevertheless is committed to helping find alternative testing techniques that will lead to diagnostic accuracy without employing race-based norms. As requested by the court, the NFL is working with class counsel, and the parties’ respective medical experts, under the guidance of the federal magistrate judge, to that end. We understand that the court intends to solicit the views of interested parties as part of the process.”
Moment that changed everything
Clarence’s story is typical of some Black NFL players who took part in the concussion settlement. Their claim was ignored (Brooke says they were “ghosted”) but at the time they didn’t understand why, only to find out later their case was allegedly race-normed.
In addition to being a former NFL player, Clarence built a career as a software engineer and enterprise architect (responsible for maintaining a company’s IT network).
But there was the short-term memory loss, anxiety and depression, Brooke says. There was the “conspiracy type” of paranoia, she said, in addition to the nightmares. He also had suicidal thoughts.
“He once told me, ‘If I was on a railroad track, and a train was coming, I wouldn’t move,'” Brooke told USA TODAY Sports. “I think the kids are what’s keeping him here.”
They were convinced that what she called Clarence’s extensive history of concussions while playing in the NFL from 1987 to 1992 caused his issues. They joined the class-action concussion lawsuit in 2012 and waited. Then came a life-changing moment in 2019 when Clarence participated in a research study at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
They were speaking with some friends who were also part of the study when one buddy in particular, who had almost an identical NFL career, mentioned something unusual. He asked, Brooke said, what phase was Clarence in? The friend was white and Clarence is Black.
Brooke and Clarence didn’t know what they were talking about. They investigated and found that Clarence’s claim had been rejected due to race-norming, Brooke said.
‘Racism is always economic’
How did the NFL allegedly get to this place? For now, no one knows exactly, but this is the theory of how it all came together, based on interviews with lawyers for the plaintiffs:
The NFL reached that concussion settlement with players in 2013. The settlement allows for payments of up to one billion dollars. So far the NFL has paid some $838 million to over 1,200 players.
The NFL may have simply wanted to reduce or eliminate payouts to the original plaintiffs or future ones and viewed race-norming as a mechanism to do that, wives and others familiar with the race-norming cases claim. That way the league could possibly save at least hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s unclear who first pushed the use of race-norming; if it was the NFL or another entity, or when exactly the NFL knew it was being utilized.
Several members of Congress, including Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., according to the New York Times, have asked the NFL for race-norming data.
Former Packers running back Davenport compared the use of race-norming to redlining, where Black people are denied home loans to live in certain neighborhoods.
“Do people think Black athletes are less than white athletes?” Davenport said. “Is that the consensus? Is that what people in the front office think?”
Lewis, the wife of former running back Ken Jenkins who is now 61, has yet to suffer any significant health problems from his playing days, she said. This is different from Clarence Vaughn. Brooke says during games Clarence, now 56, would get a concussion on top of a concussion.
“He’d get a concussion, leave the field for a few minutes,” she said, “then go back on the field with blurry vision and a headache, then get another one. Several times he blacked out during games.”
“He’s 50-years-old but has the brain of someone in their 70s,” Brooke said.
Brooke added her husband sometimes feels like he’s lost hope, or has difficulty fighting through the depression, and she wonders about the players who don’t have wives or partners to help them.
“There are players who are too depressed to push through it all,” she said, “or don’t have a wife or partner like me. Those players have no chance.”
Lewis says her husband’s good health didn’t stop her from becoming engaged in the issue.
“I have always been extremely passionate about stopping racism in medicine,” explained Lewis, who said she is a practitioner of Chinese medicine. “The disparate treatment between Black and brown people is pretty stark. So I’ve always worked on these issues.”
She added: “When I heard about race-norming, my brain fell out of my head.”
Lewis started a petition to support the players which has over 50,000 signatures.
“This is all about the NFL and money,” Lewis said. “Racism is always economic. It’s been economic since slavery.”
Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday morning that he wants to see more consistency in the application of the NFL’s concussion protocol.