Sports have long been a prominent frontier where issues of racism, exploitation, labor, and power have been debated and contested. In this respect, North American football has been no exception and, indeed, has represented a particularly rugged stretch of terrain on this frontier. The National Football League (NFL), which had only a handful of black players in its early decades—and which included legendary artist, civil rights activist, and socialist luminary Paul Robeson—was a whites-only enterprise during the Depression years and World War II. Black players of this era were largely relegated to secondary leagues or formed their own all-black barnstorming teams, like the Harlem Brown Bombers and Chicago Black Hawks. Though black reintegration began during the 1940s, for decades thereafter, unofficial quotas capping the number of black players on team rosters were commonplace, and black players were effectively barred from positions thought to involve considerable leadership, like center and quarterback.1
Indeed, racist assumptions about the mental and physical capacities of black players endured long after the last NFL team was integrated in the early 1960s. For some, like former gambling bookie and television journalist Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, black athleticism on the gridiron was a gift of racial physiology: “they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs,” Snyder proclaimed, traits that he attributed to the legacy of chattel slavery, in which “the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid, see?” Snyder was fired from his decade-long run on CBS’s NFL Today for that kind of raw “color commentary,” but many more publicly and privately doubted the ability of blacks to lead in the sport as quarterbacks and as coaches.2 The same year as the Snyder controversy, Doug Williams obliterated such nonsense with his sublime performance during the 1988 Super Bowl, becoming the first black quarterback to win a league championship. The subsequent success of black quarterbacks such as Steve McNair, Michael Vick, and Russell Wilson, head coaches like Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, and Mike Tomlin, and front office personnel like Ozzie Newsome, among many others, have further shattered racist illusions about black capacity, game IQ, and leadership acumen.
Yet a resurgence of racialized medicine, legitimized by a reductionist preoccupation with racial disparities, has produced a new wave of reactionary thinking and practice that threatens black players. On August 25 of last year, two retired NFL players filed legal actions against the NFL in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. In their filings, Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry allege that the league employs racially discriminatory criteria in evaluating former players for neurocognitive impairments, the presence of which are used to determine eligibility for compensation related to the NFL’s landmark 2013 billion-dollar concussion settlement. In short, the suits allege that NFL-approved doctors are instructed to use different scales for scoring cognitive functioning among black and white former players, with the scale for black players being set at a lower threshold. These differential benchmarks, Davenport and Henry claim, have been used to deny them and other black claimants access to payouts for dementia and other neurocognitive impairments stemming from head traumas sustained while playing in the NFL.3
For its part, the NFL does not seem to be denying these allegations. Rather, it claims that the use of racial “adjustments” in scoring neurocognitive test results reflects standard medical practice and was included as part of the 2013 legal settlement. “The Settlement Program,” a statement from the league contends, “was the result of arm’s-length, comprehensive negotiations between the NFL and class counsel, was approved by the federal courts after a searching review of its fairness, and always contemplated the use of recognized statistical techniques to account for demographic differences such as age, education and race.” The statement goes on to claim that “The point of such adjustments—in contrast to the complaint’s claims—is to seek to ensure that individuals are treated fairly and compared against comparable groups,” while also noting that “the Settlement Agreement does not require the use of any particular adjustments, and instead leaves their use to the sound discretion of the independent clinicians administering the tests in any particular case.”4
This situation is instructive on a number of fronts, particularly for those of us with left politics. In particular, we should be cautious of embracing the racial disparitarian lens preferred by many liberals, especially when its legitimation of racial medicine and biological racism poses an imminent threat to black players’ legal claims and attendant recompense. Instead, what might move the needle here is broad player solidarity, rooted in both a vociferous rejection of biological notions of racial difference as well as a clear-eyed commitment to challenging the exploitation of players at the hands of ownership. Clarity on these matters, moreover, holds important lessons for broader issues of justice and organizing in the contemporary moment, a reality dramatized by the NFL’s recent embrace of the contemporary rhetoric of racial justice, à la Black Lives Matter.
Racecraft and Ownership’s Exploitation Prerogative
First, it is important to recognize that the NFL’s apparent use of race-based criteria for denying access to settlement compensation is a textbook example of the way that the ideology of race is designed to work in society. As Adolph Reed, Jr. explains, “Race is a taxonomy of ascriptive difference … that constructs populations as groups and sorts them into hierarchies of capacity, civic worth, and desert based on ‘natural’ or essential characteristics attributed to them.” Crucially, these “Ideologies of ascriptive difference help to stabilize a social order by legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things.”5
This ideology first emerged historically in the American colonies during the Revolutionary period, when the “universal rights” that served as justification for rebellion against the British Crown clashed with the quotidian reality of chattel slavery. The enslavement of Africans had, for a hundred years or so years to that point, proceeded without any systematic justification, racial or otherwise. As Barbara Jeanne Fields points out, “there was nothing to explain until most people could, in fact, take liberty for granted—as the indentured servants and disfranchised freedmen of colonial America could not”—in other words, in a pre-Revolutionary society in which “everyone… stood in a relation of inherited subordination to someone else.”6 Within the context of the Revolutionary period, then, the ideology of race and racial hierarchy emerged to explain the denial of newly won liberty to enslaved Africans. It is also worth noting that the English indentured servants and laborers of the colonial era were spared the all-encompassing exploitation and bondage of chattel slavery not out of any sense of racial or cultural solidarity from their landed counterparts, but due to their political standing under the British Crown, secured over centuries of class conflict.
“Race,” then, no more explains patterns of neurocognitive functioning among ex-NFL players today than it explained the enslavement of those descended from Africa in the antebellum United States. Since race is a historical construct with no biological basis, it is incapable of making things happen or explaining anything. The degradation associated with slavery produced the notion of racial inferiority, not the other way around. Similarly, racial difference does not produce the allegedly lower average levels of cognitive functioning among African Americans today—though the medical practice of treating race as an independent variable in analyzing neurocognitive scores reinforces this gravely misguided and dangerous notion. Fields and her sister, Karen E. Fields, refer to this tendency to misattribute material causation to race as “racecraft,” analogous to a belief in witchcraft.7
In fact, the NFL’s statement that the scoring of neurocognitive test results includes adjustments for other factors like “education” hints at the real source of any potential scoring differentials across racial groups. In general, neurocognitive development and functioning are dynamic processes shaped by environmental and life course factors. Since African Americans are more likely than whites and other groups not only to receive substandard education, but also to be exposed to environmental toxins, receive inadequate medical care, and suffer from the trauma of living in neighborhoods with high levels of violence, among other adverse experiences, it follows that the most submerged and dispossessed blacks might be more likely to have lower average levels of neurocognitive functioning. But it should be recognized that, to whatever extent such patterns may exist, they are produced not by any ostensible racial difference, but by patterns of exposure to particular conditions and experiences. Thus, whites and members of any other racialized group exposed to such phenomena are no less susceptible to their effects. While we should forcefully repudiate any notion that those forced to the bottom of hierarchies of wealth and power are somehow biologically distinct, we should recognize that the conditions imposed on vulnerable populations can, indeed, have deleterious effects.
As the quote from Reed above indicates, moreover, it is important to note that throughout U.S. history, racism has not constituted an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. This applies equally to chattel slavery, the neurocognitive testing being carried out by the NFL today, and the tortured and complex history in between. “The object” of slavery, Fields reminds us, “was to produce cotton or sugar or tobacco, not to produce white supremacy.”8 Similarly, the aim of using racially adjusted metrics for neurocognitive test scoring is not to reinforce racism or white supremacy. Rather, it is to deny players access to compensation to which they might otherwise be entitled and for which NFL owners would pay; racism, then, is the means through which owners are pursuing this economic end. And, given that 70 percent of the league’s players are black, the imperative for raising the diagnostic threshold for black players is unmistakable.
Yet it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the interests of owners would be served by excluding or further exploiting white players. In fact, the league’s insistence that the use of racial criteria are not required in scoring neurocognitive assessments actually points to the possibility that owners are encouraging doctors to use a “black scale” for black players and a general one for white players. This would likely be to the disadvantage of white players, since presumably the diagnostic threshold for a general scale would be elevated relative to a white-exclusive scale due to its inclusion of demographic groups more likely to be subjected to phenomena that depress neurocognitive development and functioning. Such a practice would promote underdiagnoses among former white players as well. Given the choice between cheating former white players out of economic expediency and failing to exploit such an opportunity out of some sense of presumed racial solidarity, it is not difficult to guess which option ownership would likely prioritize.
In short, race is doing for NFL owners the work it has always been deployed to do, which is to justify the denial of rights, particularly acute labor exploitation, based on socially constructed notions of natural difference. Clearly, these practices should be emphatically denounced on these grounds. But we should also be clear that league owners are not using race-based criteria in neurocognitive test scoring because they are racist—though they may very well be—but because they have an economic imperative to do so. The material interests at stake in this dynamic point us toward its deeper political-economic roots and the need for a line of critique that goes beyond denunciations of racism: in the end, racism flows not from any innate human tendency, but from the prerogatives of capitalist exploitation.
Population Averages, Racial Medicine, and Race Reductionism
It is revealing that racial adjustments in neurocognitive test scoring emerged not for the purpose of upholding white supremacy, or even to protect the economic interests of powerful elites, but from neuropsychologists’ ethical efforts to prevent blacks from being subject to overdiagnosis of impairment. While this practice is ultimately misguided for the reasons described above, in the absence of comprehensive data on experiences and conditions that might actually affect neurocognitive functioning, the practice of using race as a proxy for those other indicators may be somewhat understandable.
Nonetheless, we need to be clear that race is a very problematic proxy for other indicators, and not only because it reinforces treacherous notions of biological determinism and conceals the very real effects of those other indicators (as such, a quintessential example of racecraft in action).9 As with neurocognitive testing, ostensible racial differences are typically deduced by comparing population averages among groups whose identities have been socially constructed and ascribed. But these are simply statistical abstractions and tell us nothing about individual cases. Indeed, they flatten and make invisible intragroup differences by making intergroup differences the standard of analysis and concern. And as long as the groups being compared are “racial groups”—and they almost always are—class inequality and other differences become invisible, subsumed under the guise of racial averages, on one hand, and racial disparities, on the other.
With respect to Davenport and Henry’s lawsuits, for example, it defies logic that expertly trained, world-class athletes, almost all of whom have at least some college education and most of whom have lived much of their adult lives in the upper echelons of society, might have their neurocognitive scores adjusted downward based on the average score for African Americans in general. If anything, a more sensible point of group comparison for claimants in NFL concussion cases would be other NFL players—that is, those who share the same training and occupation as well as their attendant hazards and economic spoils. However unfortunate, the fact that race stands in for this kind of more meaningful point of comparison, occupation and class position, is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of contemporary discourse.
Indeed, the racial adjustments in neurocognitive test scoring contested in Davenport and Henry’s lawsuits are part of broader medical practices involving the use of “diagnostic algorithms and practice guidelines that adjust or ‘correct’ their outputs on the basis of a patient’s race or ethnicity.”10 These practices persist in spite of the widespread acknowledgement among social scientists, geneticists, and the broader public alike that race is a taxonomy that arbitrarily references phenotypical traits but lacks any meaningful biological basis, and is not a coherent “natural” typology. To invoke the often cited—but apparently just as often ignored—phrase, there is greater genetic variation within so-called racial groups than between them. As with Davenport, Henry, and other black former NFL players, moreover, the use of such actuarially legitimized racial medicine can and does have profound effects on blacks (and, in some cases, other groups). These practices and their effects cut across all areas of medicine and include everything from depressing medical risk estimates and elevating thresholds for clinical treatment to discouraging potentially life-saving procedures and reducing pools of potential organ donors.11 Incredibly, these overtly racist practices and their dire implications have been entirely ignored in the public discourse on racial disparities in health care in favor of an emphasis on “structural racism,” which, beneath a seemingly radical rhetorical veneer, most often translates as implicit biases among medical professionals.12
Nonetheless, many liberals routinely—indeed, almost exclusively—employ the same problematic focus on population averages and disparities in assessing social issues and in ignoring the diversity and complexity of intragroup experiences and interests. For example, the constantly invoked “racial wealth gap,” which is conceived of as the difference in household wealth between the median white and black families, completely ignores the fact that within each group, roughly 75 percent of the group’s total wealth is concentrated among the top decile.13 So the broader issue of obscene wealth concentration—which adversely impacts the vast majority of both whites and blacks—is rendered invisible, and we are made to think that the problem is between “average” black and white people, not between the haves and the have-nots. Moreover, the public policy focus on wealth disparity normalizes wealth as a legitimate social aspiration while suffocating the kind of critical analysis of wealth creation needed to grapple with and redress inequality, namely, of capital accumulation as the source of social misery, dispossession, exploitation, and inequality broadly felt by the working class across racial and ethnic affinity groups.
This tendency also finds expression in the ubiquitous discourse of structural and institutional racism and white privilege, which presume and reinforce the misguided reductionist notion that race constitutes the primary fault line in society. In this telling, black members of the investor class are recast as part of an oppressed minority, and poor whites are recast as privileged beneficiaries of white supremacy.14 White intellectuals who challenge or complicate this race-centric narrative are often dismissed as emblems of the narrative itself, that is, their views are reflexively derided as manifestations of white privilege or, in the latest corporate parlance, “white fragility.”15 When black intellectuals like Reed criticize this dominant narrative, such attempts are condemned by some ostensible leftists as “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”16 As with Davenport and Henry, however, population averages on social indicators—neurocognitive functioning, poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and whatever else—tell us nothing about any individual’s experiences or circumstances. In short, as with genetics, there is greater variation in class positions within racial groups than between them.
Yet it is only through this race-reductionist lens that we accept the notion that black elites are basically no different from their poor and working-class counterparts. Certainly many black elites themselves play up this narrative. It is what allows Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to excoriate local black protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by invoking the power and success of Atlanta’s black political and economic elites as some kind of panacea for the injustices faced by poor and working-class blacks.17 It is what allows Beyoncé to apparently feel no contradiction in shooting a visual album ostensibly “meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry” in which her opulent lifestyle and luxurious comforts are propped up by the exploited labor of a veritable army of black servants and guards.18 It is what allows aspiring black music executives to frame their desire for “Black execs to have true access to power… in the power structure of the music business” as a call for “racial justice,” and not as the call for equal-opportunity artist exploitation that it is.19 Indeed, it is what allows and Diddy and JAY-Z to proclaim that “It’s bigger than being billionaires,” that “it’s about owning our culture and leading the revolution,” with no sense of irony regarding their celebration of concentrated wealth and private ownership and the notion that they are leading some kind of “revolution.”20 Here, following Kenneth Warren’s lines of critique, the pursuit and wielding of obscene wealth and power—even over other blacks—are recast as matters of racial justice.21 The empowerment of any black person in any capacity is celebrated as “black empowerment” or the manifestation of “black power,” regardless of its implications for poor and working-class blacks.
On the flip side, we should also recognize that such diversity of experiences and interests exists among whites as well. Thus, it is both analytically and politically misguided to emphasize the ubiquity of white privilege and to treat this alleged privilege as the primary determinant of life chances when whites constitute the largest segment—if not the outright majority—of the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those killed by police, and those affected by nearly every other adverse social indicator. It is little wonder that this message of universal white privilege seems more readily received by middle-class and upwardly mobile whites than by their poor and working-class counterparts, since privilege defines the lived experience of the former group and completely contradicts the lived experience of the latter. Jeff Bezos imagines that his lack of concern that his 20-year-old son might be a victim of police violence has to do with his whiteness, and not the fact that Bezos is the wealthiest man on the planet.22 He would likely feel quite differently about the prospects of police violence if he were poor and earning a living in the underground economy. The white privilege frame takes class power and economic comfort and reimagines them as racial privilege. In short, it is nothing more than white race reductionism.
We should reject this tendency, the dangerous assumptions upon which it rests, and the limited political vision that it produces.
The Limits of Disparitarian Antiracism
The apparent denial of compensation related to traumatic brain injuries for black former NFL players is an egregious example of economic abuse legitimized by racialized medicine and, ultimately, biological racism. That such naked racism might be invoked two decades into the twenty-first century as a plausible basis for exploitation is deeply disturbing. Yet the story of Davenport and Henry’s lawsuits, and the widespread swindling of black players that they appear to indicate, has seemingly gained relatively little traction. When juxtaposed with the league’s recent public relations campaign, intended on rehabilitating its image as a champion of “racial justice” following a contentions, years-long controversy over player protests during pregame national anthem performances, this inattention appears even more startling.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, a number of black players, including 25-year-old league MVP and Super Bowl champion quarterback Patrick Mahomes, released a video calling on the league to condemn racism and admit the wrongfulness of its response to earlier player protests.23 The following day, league commissioner Roger Goodell issued a video response, employing the exact language the players requested in their video: “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.”24 This season, the league has run ads, adorned playing fields, and branded player helmets with messages decrying racism and police violence, affirming that Black Lives Matter and “it takes all of us” to “end racism.” It has been an incredible about-face for the NFL, whose owners in recent years were being publicly lambasted as “old white men” exhibiting a “slave mentality” toward their players.25
So why has the NFL largely avoided the public blowback that would presumably follow not only the news of the league using biological racism to deny black players’ brain-trauma compensation claims, but also of the hypocrisy of doing so while decrying “racism and the systematic oppression of black people?” We believe that the tepid public response to these contradictions can be explained by how they relate to prevailing notions of race, racism, and inequality. The NFL’s Black Lives Matter–esque public relations campaign, for example, echoes common calls for viewing racism as a ubiquitous, seemingly metaphysical force and for interpreting police violence exclusively as a “racial injustice.” This framing bolsters the reflexive notion that race is society’s most salient fault line and that an abstract racism is the sole culprit behind all black suffering. When even staunch reactionaries like Mitch McConnell attribute police violence to anti-black racism, this is clearly safe ground for corporate messaging to tread.26 In this context, critiques of the NFL’s response have been largely limited to calls to “diversify the league’s front offices and invest a greater portion of the NFL’s billions of dollars to promote anti-racism,” if not even less specific calls for redress.27
Conversely, challenging the NFL’s use of racial criteria for assessing neurocognitive test scores would necessitate calling into question the validity of race reductionism. After all, as Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr. have pointed out, predominant strains of liberal and progressive discourse and politics have largely cohered around disparitarianism, in which differences in averages or rates of social phenomena across racialized population groups are treated as the most meaningful—if not the sole—metric for interpreting and redressing inequality.28 In this vein, it is worth reiterating here that the practice of adjusting neurocognitive test scores based on racial identity is rooted in a well-intentioned effort to prevent overdiagnosing blacks with cognitive impairments. Yet those intentions do not resolve the often devastating consequences of racial medicine for blacks, both in this case and far beyond, nor the broader analytical and political wrongheadedness undergirding that perspective. In the end, the NFL’s use of racialized population averages to deny black players compensation for traumatic brain injuries not only comports with contemporary antiracism, but is actually legitimized by the very disparitarian discourse in which such antiracism is rooted. In the end, this paradigm is impotent to challenge the biological racism on which this injustice is predicated—to say nothing of the predominance of the interests of ownership at the expense of players.
Fighting Back with Worker Power
So what is a more promising approach to the apparent swindling of Najeh Davenport, Kevin Henry, and other black former NFL players? For former players themselves, legal action is perhaps the best and only recourse available. The bigger challenge, however, is to build broad-based solidarity around this injustice with current players whose labor gives them leverage with owners that retired players simply do not possess. Such solidarity should be rooted in both a rejection of biological racism that serves as a justification of this chicanery and a commitment to altering the balance of power between players and ownership that facilitates it. This is obviously more easily articulated than achieved, and NFL players face some particular challenges to labor solidarity, including the league’s antitrust exemption, large player rosters, nonguaranteed contracts, near-continuous roster turnover, short playing careers, sharp stratification among players themselves, and ownership’s power in the media. In addition, the NFL Players Association signed a collective bargaining agreement with the league last March that runs through 2030 that makes exercising collective labor power much more difficult.
Nonetheless, NFL players are not powerless in this situation, either. Players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) spontaneously organized a wildcat strike of sorts in August of last year, postponing a number of playoff games to discuss league action following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While any form of wildcat action among NFL players may be decidedly less likely—particularly as the global protests against police violence that provided the backdrop for the NBA players’ actions have subsided—players could certainly use their presence in the media and the profile of the Super Bowl to draw attention to this obvious injustice. Juxtaposing it with the league’s recent embrace of antiracist rhetoric and its attendant publicity campaign would offer a particularly acute contrast. Forcing the league to commit to ending its use of race-based neurocognitive test scoring and to reevaluting past claims that have been denied on those grounds are important goals and seem within reach if sufficient solidarity among today’s players can be built toward that end. NFL owners are betting on “The Greek”—or, at least, on the kind of reactionary racial pseudoscience the former bookie once peddled. With the proper solidarity, the players could make them pay for that wager.
Whatever the chances of players taking action to bring light to this issue and its prospective resolution, legal or otherwise, the dimensions of this case hold important lessons for progressive politics more broadly. The ideal solutions here are essentially identical to those in other societal injustices, whether felt inordinately by blacks or otherwise: universal standards that serve the needs of workers, aggressive enforcement of these standards and of nondiscrimination, greater worker organization and solidarity, and challenges to the exploitative power of capital. Beyond this, a transformation of the degrading material conditions that produce differences in cognitive development and functioning and that constitute the quotidian milieu of today’s historic inequality must be attacked via concerted programs of downward distribution.
In the end, what is needed is a rejection of population averages and disparities between racial groups as the delimiters of social injustice and redress, and an embrace of a broader solidarity forged in an unequivocal rejection of both notions of essential racial difference and the exploitative order that they legitimize.