Credit: John Zant (file)

STUFF HAPPENS: Come Sunday, I just want to eat gumbo and watch the game, okay? What I don’t want to do is think about stuff.

Stuff has a sneaky way of intruding. It doesn’t just stay conveniently closeted in the past. You can’t say of such stuff, “Oh that was then” — and then insert the years 1619, 1787, 1877, 1896, and 2013, for example — “but this is now.”

Then is now. 

Now is then.

You may have heard how in recent years the National Football League was forced to agree to set aside $1 billion for as many as 20,000 former players who may have come down with premature senility — or a host of even worse variants thereof — from playing a sport that inflicts on its players’ heads a g-force equivalent of falling down 12 flights of stairs.

I know, no stuff.

It turns out that in evaluating the players’ claims, the attorneys representing both the league and the players themselves agreed to a series of qualifying cognitive brain function tests that start with the assumption that Black people have less cognitive brain capacity than White people. 

I know, all this happened a long time ago, way back in 2021. 

Since these tests are hardwired to assume Black former players have lower brain function to start with, it is incumbent upon these players, their spouses, or their attorneys to demonstrate a dramatically worse level of brain function loss than their White counterparts in order to qualify for remedial payouts that range in value from $25,000 to $5 million, depending on age of the player, years in the league, and the loss caused. 

All this is impeccably scientific. There is absolutely no individual racist intent. In fact, it’s baked into the very algorithms by which whiners and complainers are weeded out from the truly needy.

Black and White players are given the exact same tests. The test results for both are graded on a curve. But the curves are decidedly different. The algorithm for White players makes it easier to show cognitive loss. The algorithm for Black players — which assumes a lower baseline functionality — makes it harder to show cognitive decline. Given that there are far more Black players in the applicant pool than White players, one might suspect these algorithms were inserted to save the league a lot of money. 

The bad news is that they weren’t.

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Even worse, they were initially designed in the 1990s by well-intentioned White neuropsychologists who thought they were trying to counter the insidious distortions caused by social bias implicit in their tests and the negative stereotyping their test results appeared to perpetuate.

Statistically, they found, Black subjects typically scored significantly lower on their cognitive tests than White subjects. What were the neuropsychologists supposed to do with that? Treat all Black people as though they were on the slow slide to senility? Dismiss the test as faulty because of all the false positives?

But they couldn’t just throw out their tests; the tests were important. One of the challenges confronting neuropsychologists is they can’t go back in time to conduct genuine before-and-after comparisons on a patient. Accordingly, they devised statistical norms by which they could compare a person to others of their age, class, gender, and educational backgrounds. If the tests yielded false positives for a whole race of people, they’d just grade on the curve. If Black people scored lower, that would be attributed to a host of socioeconomic factors like poverty and poor schools. 

All this was wrapped up in a tidy algorithm to encompass all the impossibly complicated realities of Blackness. They have a phrase for this. It’s called “race norming.” In the context of the NFL, it’s called the “Heaton Norms.” One wonders just how sensitive or diagnostically relevant any race-norming algorithms could be, but especially those relying on data sets more than 20 years old.

But that’s another question. 

Typically, when dealing with patients, such test results are used in conjunction with a battery of other indicators to figure out a proper course of treatment. They are almost never the sole determinant. 

But for football players who’ve had their bells rung enough to think they’re Quasimodo, they were.

At least until Najeh Davenport, a seven-year running back with the Steelers and the Packers, sued the NFL in 2020 along with Kevin Henry, a former NFL defensive end. Davenport sustained at least 10 concussions during his career; once, he got hit so hard that one of his eye sockets shattered and had to be surgically rebuilt. 

After retiring, Davenport experienced all the typical problems with word retrieval, memory loss, depression, and rage. He filed a claim. When first tested, Davenport’s doctor defied testing protocols and didn’t apply the Heaton Norms. Davenport qualified for a payout. When the NFL found out his results had not been race-normed, the league objected and rejected Davenport’s award. When Davenport sued, he lost in court. 

But all the publicity didn’t help a league desperately trying to Blackwash its history in the wake of the George Floyd murder. This past October, the NFL — which always insisted it never applied the Heaton Norms — announced it would no longer apply the Heaton Norms. Not that there was anything racist about it, the league said; it was just bad science. That’s all. 

You may have heard about this. Somehow I missed it. 


In the year 2021.

Every morning, I walk the dog. We pass a house with one of those sweetly insufferable yard signs that proclaim “Science Is Real.”

I wonder.

Pass the gumbo. Go Bengals! No stuff. 

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