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Week In Sports: College Basketball Faces Coronavirus Crisis

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now, as they say on T-shirts all over America, it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: March Madness may have a lot of March omissions this year. And this week, a judge acknowledged a massive settlement to compensate former NFL players for concussion damage may have discriminated against Black players. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Boy. Last two days, four teams, including University of Virginia and Duke, have had to withdraw from tournaments because of COVID positive tests. Tell us about that.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, and the latest was Kansas. The men's team, ranked 11th in the nation, had to pull out of its semifinal game last night against Texas in the Big 12 tournament. And as you mentioned, Virginia, Duke withdrew from the ACC tourney. Duke pulled out of the NCAA tournament, which starts next week. The first time since 1994 - the '94 season, the Blue Devils will not be part of March Madness. Virginia and Kansas still hope they will be.

SIMON: What are the implications, do you think, for the rest of the college basketball season, such as it is?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, like in all sports leagues during the pandemic, Scott, officials here are nervously trying to finish and hold off the virus. They announced this week teams need just five healthy players to play in the men's and women's tournaments. In the men's, the last few teams that get left out of the bracket, which will be unveiled tomorrow, still could replace teams that drop out because of COVID. But once the tournaments...

SIMON: I mean, forgive me. This is a movie plot. This is when the team manager, the guy, you know, who...

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Washes the sheets and towels and - you know, gets put in, yeah.

GOLDMAN: Get in there, kid. You're healthy. Yeah. But once the tournament starts, if a team has to withdraw, there's no replacement. The opponent simply moves on in the tournament. Organizers will try their best to create protective bubbles for the men who will play their whole tournament in Indiana, mainly in Indianapolis, and for the women in Texas, mainly in San Antonio.

SIMON: Yeah. Look; a story you've been following, which I find remarkable and - I don't mind saying - appalling - a new look is being taken at an agreement that the NFL made to compensate retired players for concussion damage. And it turns out they may have been using metrics that contain race-based test norms.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. It's the huge ongoing concussion settlement between NFL and thousands of retired players. It allows players to get payments, potentially a lot of money if they're evaluated by doctors and shown to be impaired with conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's. Now, two former Black players alleged in legal actions last year that the evaluations used race as one of the benchmarks, calling it race-norming, saying it skewed the evaluations to show that Black players had less impairment and, therefore, qualified for less money than white players.

So this week, the judge overseeing the settlement said she's concerned about this race-norming. She sent the issue to a mediator to help fix it by working with the NFL and the main lawyer for the players who are covered in the settlement.

SIMON: You talked to the lawyer. I find this astonishing, like something left over from the eugenics period. And how could they just be noticing it now?

GOLDMAN: Attorney Cy Smith called it - called this race-norming Jim Crow in the 21st century, overt racial discrimination. He says it's important - an important first step that the judge recognizes race-norming is a problem and that she's ordered the mediation. But he wants the Black players he represents part of the mediation to make sure it's a transparent process.

Now, the NFL says it's looking forward to working with the mediator to address the court's concerns. The lead attorney for the players, Chris Seeger, says he hasn't seen evidence of racial bias in the settlement, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. He says he's continuing to investigate. He also supports eliminating race-norming in the medical evaluations.

SIMON: Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.