NFL: A Case Study in Institutionalized Racism

I am an incredibly low-key NFL spouse. I rarely even talk about my relationship with Richard Dent. I actively avoid using my relationship with him to leverage my own career or identity. However, I’m compelled to speak out about what’s happening to him and so many others who played in the NFL. 

I am absolutely appalled by:

1) the treatment of their retired players–their “legends” 
2) the lack of responsibility for LEADING on the issue of calling out and ending institutionalized racism
3) their lack of accountability for their own deeply racist practices and 
4) their treatment of Black players  (Note: I could actually keep going with this list...) 

I am officially fed up and I am stepping into the arena with my sisters.
Sitting quietly in the corner is not where you’ll find me.

The lawsuit I’m referring to is a class-action lawsuit against the NFL and Richard is one of the lead defendants. The NFL’s actions in this lawsuit not just reaffirm the systemic racism that exists within that organization but actually perpetuates an image of Black athletes that is reinforcing a racist stereotype. More importantly, perhaps, is when you consider the influence that the NFL has on public perception that impacts society across generations, races, class, religion. 

Most of the plaintiffs in this suit are retired athletes who are 60 plus years old and played football in a very different era – long before big franchise players with multimillion-dollar annual contracts were even a thing. Most of the people who played in the NFL during this time played a couple years, made $50 to $100K a year, and then had to move on and make some sort of a living for themselves.  

Now, as a result of playing in the NFL, these players are experiencing significant medical issues such as early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's, PTSD as well as other serious emotional, mental, and physical limitations. Faced with a myriad of challenges: extraordinary expenses from Doctor’s bills, caregiver costs, and mounting health problems, this group banded together to implore the NFL – and its billions of (tax-free because they are a “not-for-profit”) dollars –  to help them. The NFL’s response was, “Nope, not our problem.” Not the problem of a group that built its billions of dollars on the backs of these very players. 

The lawsuit has forced the NFL to at least allow the players to look into whether or not their injuries are severe enough to constitute any form of reparation. These guys, including Richard, are subjected to rigorous testing by different doctors over many visits. I know the process because I’ve been there. I take him back and forth. I sit with doctors. I go through the interview processes. (Trust me, it ain’t pretty. Having these doctors look down their noses at me like I’m some sort of gold-digging hustler that’s trying to make a quick come-up off this YEARS-long process...seriously?!) I look at the brain scans and I hear the explanations of why it is that Richard’s brain images are 98% red as composed to a healthy normal brain filled with so much more green and I understand exactly what the issues are; this man has CTE and his brain functioning is diminished. Note: I didn’t need the brain scan to tell me that; I live with him. It’s super obvious. 

Here’s the tricky part, doctor’s assessments are based on their own summation of a players’ cognitive fitness to begin with as opposed to now. The “gap” decides the extent of damage done and is directly correlated with payout amounts. However, they are only talking to players years after the actual trauma. The “pre-” part of the gap assessment is totally subjective. They have to backfill, based on their own lenses, how “fit” they believe each person to be–then and now. So if I’m talking to someone like Richard, with his Georgia drawl and often lax use of “proper English,” I might say to myself “You know what, he wasn’t that bright to begin with.” That assessment is totally subjective, and it’s ridiculously biased. The most appalling part is the fact that these assessments have been found to be not a one-off but instead part of widespread race-norming

Retired players and their families' lives are being decided and altered by race-norming practices. 

That is time and again, there is the determination that the white players’ pre-NFL status was more capable and intelligent than the Black players. Therefore, an assumption was made that a greater amount of damage was done to the white players and larger settlement amounts were awarded. Just to put the level of this problem in perspective, in 2020, Black athletes constituted 70% of the League’s players. That demographic isn’t far off from what it’s been for years. 

Here’s the thing that is pissing me off about this more than any of it–the NFL has more money than God. And their influence? You saw the movie Concussion. You know the line, “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day of the week the church used to own. Now it’s theirs. They’re very big.” 

  • They are a multibillion-dollar company that is classified as a not-for-profit, a status that makes them exempt from taxes. 
  • The top five most valuable teams in the league, as of 2020, have a combined worth of 22.2 billion dollars.
  • The organization has enough money to constantly feed the mill of new recruits, pay multimillion-dollar contracts to new folks, the players, the coaches, doctors, lawyers, media, and everyone else – but not enough to do right by the people who have been the foundation of their success. Yes, I know, they’ve paid some money – to only 25% of claimants. 

My vision of the NFL right now is a lot of money and little leadership, not if leadership means standing up for values over profits, principles over privileges. The NFL are not only perpetrators of institutionalized racism but they’re actually purveyors of it. While they’ve pledged to drop race-norming, I’m not buying it.

They have had the opportunity to step up long before, and have stayed quiet. They have so much influence in the way public opinion is formed and, for an organization with the kind of reach they have, we should demand more accountability. Not just me because of my relationship, but all of us. After the murder of George Floyd, though late to the microphone and only after being pressured by current players, did Roger Goodell eventually condemn racism and the systemic oppression of Black people. Then what? They started a collaboration with Jay-Z and... What have they actually done to mitigate systemic oppression of Black people in their own organization? Let alone condemn racism beyond the NFL’s systems and play a leadership role in this national agenda? That’s what leadership is...standing up, or kneeling for our values.  

I’m ready to see something truly next level. The bar should be high for them, for all of us, and I know they can clear it if they actually put their commitments into genuine action. For the rest of you, people leading equity, diversity and inclusion efforts in your own organizations, I hope you’re digging in deep. I hope you are standing by the commitments you made in mid-2020 and have been actively interrogating your processes, investing in your own learning and growth, providing the same developmental opportunities for your leaders and managers, and integrating equity-based practices into your organization’s systems. Most importantly, I hope you are surrounding yourself with people who are able and willing to tell you if you’re missing the mark, if your biases are getting in the way of positive and inclusive impact. 

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