PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of Black NFL retirees denied payouts in the $1 billion concussion settlement now qualify for awards after their tests were rescored to eliminate racial bias.
Changes to the settlement made last year are meant to make the tests race-blind. The use of “race norming” in the dementia testing made it more difficult for Blacks to prove they had the kind of cognitive decline that qualifies retired players for awards that average $500,000 or more.
Nearly 650 men have had their dementia tests automatically rescored, according to a report released Friday by the law firm handling claims against the NFL. The retirees had met the other criteria for a successful claim, which includes hours of validity testing to show that their daily lives are significantly impaired and that they are not malingering.
Fifty-one now qualify for moderate to advanced dementia awards, which vary based on condition and years of play. Nearly 250 show signs of early dementia and will received up to $35,000 in enhanced medical testing and treatment. All of them initially failed to qualify because of the race-norming issues in testing.
The new test results will add millions to the NFL’s total payouts
Thousands of other Black retirees can meanwhile seek new testing to see whether they qualify under the revised scoring formula. But advocates for the former players fear that many don’t know that, especially if they deal with memory issues and live alone.
“Men who are homeless, men who originally signed up but their cognitive function changed, men who are divorced or isolated — we are going to go looking for them,” 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, once critical of class counsel Chris Seeger for his response to the issue, now work with him to get the word out.
At the end of the day, Lewis said, she doesn’t care whether she’s “inside the tent, outside the tent,” as long as more men get help navigating the claims process. Many cases drag on for years.
An NFL spokesman did not immediately return a phone call Friday morning or respond to email messages sent in recent weeks seeking comment on the rescoring.
Seeger — lead lawyer for the nearly 20,000 retired players, who negotiated the settlement with the NFL — has apologized for initially failing to see the scope of the racial bias. He vowed in a recent interview to “make sure the NFL pays every nickel they should.”
The league’s tally just passed $1 billion in approved claims. However, appeals and audits mean the actual payouts lag behind that number — and now stand at about $916 million. They include awards for four other compensable diagnoses: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and deaths before April 2015 involving CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
As reviewers tackle the thornier dementia claims, the process has slowed down and the NFL appeals intensified. Today, nearly four in 10 dementia claims are audited by the claims administrator, Richmond-based BrownGreer — even after program doctors and expert panels weigh in.
“Their mantra is deny, deny, delay until you die,” said James Pruitt, 58, a wide receiver who played for Indianapolis and Miami from 1986 to 1991.
After his NFL retirement, Pruitt became a teacher and middle school principal in Palm Beach County, Florida. But in 2010, in his mid-40s, the district asked him to step down. He could no longer perform his duties.
Over time, he stopped calling on friends from his playing days.
“I don’t get out, and I don’t remember a lot of things. I’ve been told that I repeat things,” he said. “So I’m kind of embarrassed by the whole situation.”
After the settlement was approved in 2015, he and his wife attended meetings with the lawyers who traveled the country to sell the plan to retired players groups.
“We were told … this was going to be a very easy process, you just need to go to the doctors, get a qualifying diagnosis from them,” said Traci Pruitt, 42. “Yet here we are six years later, and we’re still getting the runaround.”
The couple was twice been approved by doctors only to have the decision overturned — once after their first doctor was removed from the program. Their lawyer believes they’ll be successful on their third try, under the race-neutral scoring formula. They’re still waiting to hear.
Traci Pruitt, an accountant who works from home, said an 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 lawyers for former Pittsburgh Steelers Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport exposed it in a 2020 lawsuit. The formula had been adopted from one used in medicine to help diagnose dementia — but was never intended to be used to determine payouts in a legal awards.
Seeger said he believes the claims process is picking up steam after a slow start.
“I know folks have said they weren’t moving that well for awhile. I think we’ve won some appellate battles with the courts,” Seeger said. “I don’t think the NFL expected to pay $1 billion — and we’re about to cross $1 billion.”
——— Follow AP Legal Affairs Writer Maryclaire Dale on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale