Hundreds of Black NFL retirees who were denied payouts in the $1 billion concussion settlement are now eligible for compensation after their tests were rescored to remove racial bias.
Changes made to the settlement last year are intended to make the tests race-blind. The use of “race norming” in dementia testing made it more difficult for African-Americans to demonstrate the kind of cognitive decline that qualifies retired players for awards of $500,000 or more.
According to a report released Friday by the law firm handling NFL claims, nearly 650 men had their dementia tests automatically rescored. The retirees had also met the other criteria for a successful claim, which included hours of validity testing to demonstrate that their daily lives were significantly hampered and that they were not lying.
Fifty-one people now qualify for moderate to advanced dementia awards, which vary depending on their condition and years of participation. Nearly 250 people have early dementia and will receive up to $35,000 in additional medical testing and treatment. They all initially failed to qualify due to race-norming issues in testing.
Meanwhile, thousands of other Black retirees can seek new testing to see if they qualify under the revised scoring formula. However, advocates for former players are concerned that many are unaware of this, particularly if they have memory problems and live alone.
“We are going to look for men who are homeless, men who signed up but their cognitive function changed, men who are divorced or isolated,” said Amy Lewis, who, along with her husband, retired Washington player Ken Jenkins, petitioned the judge overseeing the case and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to address the race-norming issue.
The couple, who were previously critical of class counsel Chris Seeger’s response to the issue, now collaborate with him to spread the word.
At the end of the day, Lewis said, she doesn’t care if she’s “inside the tent or outside the tent,” as long as more men get assistance with their claims. Many cases linger for years.
Seeger, the lead lawyer for the nearly 20,000 retired players who negotiated the settlement with the NFL, has apologized for failing to recognize the extent of the racial bias at first. In a recent interview, he vowed to “make sure the NFL pays every nickel they should.”
The league’s total approved claims just surpassed $1 billion. However, due to appeals and audits, actual payouts have fallen behind that figure and are now estimated to be around $916 million. They include awards for four additional compensable diagnoses: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and deaths prior to April 2015 that involved CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
As reviewers work through the more difficult dementia claims, the process has slowed and the NFL appeals have intensified. Even after program doctors and expert panels weigh in, nearly four out of every ten dementia claims are audited by the claims administrator, Richmond-based BrownGreer.
Pruitt left the NFL to become a teacher and middle school principal in Palm Beach County, Florida. However, when he was in his mid-40s, the district asked him to resign. He could no longer carry out his responsibilities.
He and his wife attended meetings with the lawyers who traveled the country to sell the plan to retired players groups after the settlement was approved in 2015.
The couple was approved by doctors twice, only to have the decision reversed — the first time after their first doctor was removed from the program. Under the race-neutral scoring formula, their lawyer believes they will be successful on their third attempt. They’re still waiting to hear something.
Traci Pruitt, a home-based accountant, said the award would ensure she gets the help she needs to care for her husband: “While I love him, I don’t necessarily have that background and skill set.”
The fact that the testing algorithm adjusted scores by race — as a rough proxy for someone’s socioeconomic background — went unnoticed for several years until it was revealed in a 2020 lawsuit filed by former Pittsburgh Steelers Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport. The formula was adapted from one used in medicine to aid in the diagnosis of dementia, but it was never intended to be used to calculate payouts in legal awards.