NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on ‘race norming’: ‘Yes, it should be changed if there are better processes’

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says the decision to end the football league’s controversial practice of assuming Black players have lower cognitive abilities than their white counterparts was part of a court settlement in which the NFL was just one party.

“The courts are the ones that ultimately make the decisions about the processes that are used to evaluate players to receive benefits,” he said on Wednesday during the Fortune Global Forum online conference. “We participated in saying, ‘Yes, we think this should be changed if there are better processes.’”

Last week, as part of a settlement of brain injury claims by its players, the NFL said it would stop the practice of “race norming” or “race correcting” for evaluating dementia claims by athletes. The practice assumed Black people started at a lower cognitive level than their white counterparts, making it harder for Black players to show that head injuries had impaired their brain function.

The NFL said administrators of the settlement program will review previous tests of athletes to check for racial bias, which could lead to more athletes being eligible for payouts.

On Wednesday, Goodell dodged a question about whether he or the NFL regrets the former policy. He also said that the NFL was “only one party” of the settlement, reached in 2017, and that the decisions about who received benefits was “overseen by the courts.”

The settlement came after a groundswell of complaints by players that they had suffered brain damage as a result of concussions and other trauma suffered during games and practice. Later, two former Black players sued for what they said was a discriminatory evaluation process used to determine whether players were eligible for compensation. That case was ultimately dismissed by a judge. But it led the judge to ask that the use of race-based criteria be reviewed and that the parties to the settlement seek possible alternatives.

The NFL has had a rocky history when it comes to the racial justice movement. In 2018, the league said it would require all its players on the field to stand during the national anthem in response to a movement led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to kneel in protest against police brutality (the leagues said that players could also chose to remain in the locker room). Kaepernick, now an activist, stopped playing for the NFL in 2017 after no team would sign him, which he said was the result of being blackballed for his protest campaign.

But a year ago, a month after the death of George Floyd and amid a growing racial justice movement, Goodell reversed his stance on the matter. He said the NFL should have listened to Kaepernick and that the NFL was wrong in silencing its players. He then said players would be allowed to silently protest without fines.

Correction (June 9, 2021): This story was updated to clarify that an outside administrator oversees the NFL’s settlement of brain injury claims by players. Additionally, the player settlement has no cap for payouts. Also, a quote originally attributed to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying the NFL was wrong in its policy related to players who wanted to kneel during the national anthem was in error. That actually paraphrases what he had said. The story has also been updated to include more details about the settlement’s history.

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