Last season, the NFL stenciled the words "End Racism" on its end zones.
The league left out two words.
What the NFL meant was "End Conversations About Racism."
Because when it comes to equality, the NFL prefers to punt.
The National Football League is the most successful and powerful sporting venture in American history. It's so rich and influential that it could easily afford to set new standards for decency and inclusiveness.
Instead, the NFL last week was forced to stop the practice of "race norming."
Race norming in this case is the NFL's strategic assumption that its Black players had lower cognitive function than white players.
The NFL offered this as a way to avoid paying retired Black players in its $1 billion settlement of a lawsuit brought over brain injuries.
Cut through the legalese. The NFL's stance was essentially this: Because Black players aren't very smart to begin with, if they tested poorly after their career ended, their poor tests were caused by a lack of inherent intelligence, not brain injuries suffered while playing football.
This case is an imperfect storm of NFL underhandedness, combining its historical unwillingness to admit that football causes brain injuries with its historical unwillingness to combat institutional racism.
Race norming was a disgusting strategy aimed at making it difficult for Black players to show cognitive impairment and claim a monetary settlement.
The NFL had to be forced to do the right thing, and our judicial system responded only after being pressured.
Two Black former NFL players had to file a civil rights lawsuit over race norming. Medical experts argued against the concept's validity. NFL families gathered 50,000 petitions at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, where the lawsuit had been thrown out by a judge overseeing the settlement.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody, in an unusual move, asked for a report on the issue. Retired Black NFL players can only hope that the report details how much of the $800 million the NFL has paid out has gone to Black players.
In a statement, the NFL said, "The replacement norms will be applied prospectively and retrospectively for those players who otherwise would have qualified for an award but for the application of race-based norms."
The league didn't apologize for the practice.
About 70% of NFL players are Black, but the NFL has repeatedly demonstrated that it considers Black men to be nothing more than members of a temporary labor force.
In its century of existence, the NFL has had one Black team president.
There are no Black majority team owners.
The league blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest of extrajudicial violence against Black people.
There are three Black NFL head coaches, out of 32 teams.
The Rooney Rule, instituted to promote the candidacy of Black head coaching candidates, continues to be a joke.
"Race norming" is not an outlier. It's part of the NFL's culture.
"Words are cheap. Let's see what they do," said former Washington running back Ken Jenkins.
Jenkins' wife, Amy Lewis, led the petition drive on behalf of NFL friends struggling with cognitive problems. Jenkins said he has not suffered and was working on behalf of his former colleagues.
To paraphrase Will Smith, in 2021 racism isn't getting worse. It's getting mainstreamed.
We have seen Confederate flags carried through the nation's capitol. We have seen a predictably disgusting reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, and we are seeing voter suppression laws and practices being introduced or reinforced all over the country.
The NFL is powerful enough to do some good in this country, but the league either is afraid to anger racists, or is simply aligned with them.
Instead of stenciling insincere slogans in its end zones, the NFL ought to try taking care of its players. Which, given the league's demographics, would mean taking better care of its Black players.
There is no evidence that the NFL cares to do so.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. email@example.com