The NFL has found itself in a lawsuit coming from retired Black athletes, who claim that the administration of the league’s concussion settlement discriminates against Black athletes. Former players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport claim that the testing automatically assumed Black players’ cognitive test scores were lower, making them ineligible for the money owed to them, in a concept known as “race-norming.”
The lawsuit was settled with over $1 billion going to the former players. The news of the lawsuit came with outcries of shock and surprise at a league that could do something so outrageously racist it would make George Wallace shudder. However, I wasn’t as shocked as I was disappointed.
Marginalizing Black people in the medical industry is as American as football itself. In a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academics of Science, over half of white doctors studied believe that Black people have thicker nerve endings and skin. In addition, 20 percent of white doctors believe that the nerve endings on Black people are less sensitive than their white counterparts. This embedded implicit bias makes itself evident when Black patients complain about pain.
In the NFL, these beliefs are even more evident when examining how a league with predominantly Black players are attended to by predominantly white trainers. VICE’s TV series Dark Side of Football outlines the serious injuries that players had, and the painkillers they took to mitigate that. Concussions are the main culprit, and the side effects after playing in the league often resulted in death.
The NFL has gone to extreme lengths to reduce the number of concussions, from new helmets to entirely new rules. So the big question is, if the NFL cares about concussions and recovery so much to change the rules, then why aren’t Black players getting the money they deserve in settlements?
The answer to that is clear: Whether implicitly or explicitly, the NFL believes its largely Black workforce is dispensable. The average NFL career lasts about 3.3 years, according to Statista. This is where the “next man up” mentality comes into play for teams. Organizations move on from players as soon as a serious injury occurs, and that player could lose his starting job and contract bonuses from not playing. This forces players to try and play through pain, which is glorified as being a “tough guy” or “taking one for the team”.
In Dark Side of Football, former Saints DB Delvin Breaux explains why NFL organizations and fans often view players as replaceable, and it has ties back to the old adages of slavery.
“Nobody wants to get your side because the NFL is popular, and the teams are popular,” he said. “Everyone forgets about the f****** player, which is bull****.”
Breaux continued by saying players are often not listened to by team doctors, and he even had his injury misdiagnosed by Saints trainers. The expectation is for players to suck it up and continue to play through pain, taking painkillers to continue.
For a league with predominantly Black players, the notion of taking prescription drugs and opiates just to cope with pain is alarming, especially with the trend of the drug industry hurting Black people the worst. Even if they don’t mean it, NFL organizations are creating the idea that they don’t care about the labor that works for them — except when it’s time to put on the logo and entertain the fans that will make them money.
For Black players, $1 billion isn’t going to quickly resolve the fact that they are viewed as having less cognitive function by the league they broke their bodies for. Davenport and Henry have to live with the fact that the league they played in tried to cheat them out of their money using old racist ideals.
The entire ordeal solidifies a notion that Black people have faced since slavery: that Black athletes are indestructible, yet expendable.