PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of black NFL retirees have been denied payments as part of the $1 billion concussion settlement and are now eligible for rewards after their tests were corrected to eliminate racial bias.
Changes to the regulations last year aim to make blind testing. The use of ‘race standard’ in dementia testing has made it harder for former black players to prove they had the kind of cognitive decline that qualifies retired players for rewards averaging $500,000 or more.
Nearly 650 men had their dementia tests automatically reassessed, according to a report released Friday by the NFL Claims Law Firm. The retirees had met the other criteria for a successful claim, which includes hours of proof-testing to show their daily lives are significantly impaired and they are not faking it.
Fifty-one now qualify for moderate to advanced dementia awards, which vary by condition and years of play. Nearly 250 are showing signs of early onset dementia and will receive up to $35,000 in tests and treatment improved medical. All failed to qualify at the start due to racing standards issues during testing.
The new test results will add millions to the NFL’s total payouts.
Thousands more black retirees can apply for retests to see if they qualify under the revised scoring formula. But ex-player advocates fear many will know, especially if they have memory issues and live alone.
“Homeless men, men who originally registered but whose cognitive functions have changed, divorced or isolated men, we will go looking for them,” said Amy Lewis, who, with her husband, has retired running back Ken Jenkins. , asked the judge handling the case and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to address the issue of racial normalization.
The couple, once critical of class attorney Chris Seeger for his response to the question, are now working with him to spread the word.
Ultimately, Lewis said, she doesn’t care if she’s “inside the tent, outside the tent,” as long as more men get help navigating the complaints process. Many cases drag on for years.
An NFL spokesperson did not immediately return a phone call Friday morning or respond to emails sent in recent weeks seeking comment on the new scoring.
Seeger, the lead attorney for the nearly 20,000 retired players who negotiated the settlement with the NFL, apologized for initially failing to see the extent of racial bias. He promised in a recent interview to “make sure the NFL pays every penny it should.”
The league’s tally just topped $1 billion in approved claims. However, appeals and audits mean the actual payouts are lower than that number and amount to around $916 million. They include benefits for four other compensable diagnoses: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and deaths before April 2015 involving chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
As examiners grapple with the thorniest dementia claims, the process has slowed and the NFL’s appeals have intensified. Nearly four in 10 dementia claims are verified by claims administrator BrownGreer, based in Richmond, Va., even after intervention by program physicians and expert panels.
“Their mantra is deny, deny, delay until the death,” said James Pruitt, 58, a wide receiver who played for Indianapolis and Miami from 1986 to 1991.
After retiring from the NFL, Pruitt became a teacher and college 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 friends from his playing days.
“I don’t go out and I don’t remember a lot of things. I was told I was repeating things,” he said. “So I’m a bit embarrassed by the whole situation.”
After the settlement was approved in 2015, Pruitt and his wife attended meetings with attorneys who traveled the country to sell the plan to groups of retired players.
“We were told…it was going to be a very simple process, you just have to go to the doctors, get a qualifying diagnosis from them,” said Traci Pruitt, 42. “Yet we are here six years later, and we are still having a hard time.”
The couple were approved by doctors twice, but the decision was overturned – once after their first doctor was removed from the program. Their lawyer thinks they will pass on their third try, under the race-neutral scoring formula. They are still waiting to hear.
Traci Pruitt, an accountant who works from home, said an award would get her the help she needs to care for her husband.
“Although I love it, I don’t necessarily have that experience and those skills,” she said.
That the testing algorithm adjusted scores based on race — as a rough indicator of someone’s socioeconomic background — went unnoticed for several years until attorneys for the Pittsburgh elders Steelers Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport are exposing it in a 2020 lawsuit. The formula was adopted from a formula used in medicine to help diagnose dementia, but was never intended to be used to determine payouts as part of a statutory indemnity.
Seeger said he thinks the claims process is picking up speed after a slow start.
“I know people have been saying they haven’t been moving this well for a while. I think we’ve won appeal battles with the courts,” Seeger said. “I don’t think the NFL expected to pay $1 billion – and we’re about to go over $1 billion.”