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CTE expert testifies college football a substantial factor in death of former USC linebacker

Dr. Robert Cantu, a pioneer in the field of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, testified college football was "unquestionably" a factor in Matt Gee's death, 26 years after Gee left the USC football field for the last time.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A leading expert in the field of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) testified Wednesday that playing four years of college football was a substantial contributing factor in the death of former University of Southern California linebacker Matt Gee, who died in 2018 at the age of 49.

A medical examiner ruled Gee died, 26 years after he played college football, from heart failure as a result of an alcohol and cocaine overdose. But the CTE center at Boston University examined Gee's brain after he died and determined it showed signs of CTE, a progressive brain condition thought to be caused by repeated head trauma often found in former football players. Gee's family filed a wrongful death suit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, claiming the association failed to protect Gee. The case is only the second of a former football player suing the NCAA to make it to trial.

Dr. Robert Cantu, who co-founded Boston University's CTE center, took the stand Wednesday, the ninth day of the jury trial. His center determined after Gee's death that Gee had "stage II" CTE, or mild CTE. At present, the disease can only be detected by examining a brain post-mortem.

"Essentially, there is a fluid-filled area that shouldn’t be there," said Cantu. CTE, he added, "has a very specific pattern... that an expert would be able to distinguish from any other disease."

Cantu said most people with stage II CTE exhibit certain behavioral symptoms, including rage, impulsivity and depression. On Tuesday, Gee's children testified their father displayed some of those symptoms toward the end of his life — that he was prone to random outbursts of anger, paranoia and delusion. Cantu said that research shows that someone who played college football is more than twice as likely to get CTE later in life compared to someone who only played football in high school.

He said college football was "unquestionably" a factor in Matt Gee's CTE.

The NCAA's lawyers have argued that Gee suffered from myriad other health issues, including hypertension, obesity, asthma and obstructive sleep apnea, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, which he had experienced since high school. When NCAA lawyer Will Stute asked Cantu if Gee's health history changed Cantu's opinion in the case, Cantu replied, "No, because none of the things you’re talking about — hypertension, alcoholism — have anything to do with neuropathology or CTE."

In fact, Cantu said that the effects of mild CTE could contributed to Gee's alcoholism.

"If you have impulsive behavior, it’s harder to stop something like that," he said. "You might no be able think of the consequences."

Under cross-examination by Stute, Cantu acknowledged that "it would be correct to say that low-level CTE did not directly cause his death." But, he added, "it significantly contributed to his addiction, and that is ultimately what killed him."

The NCAA's lawyers have also argued that it would have been unreasonable to expect the NCAA to have warned its players about CTE, or take steps to protect them from it, back in the 1990s, because the science around what is now recognized to be a neurodegenerative disease was not yet developed.

The plaintiff's attorneys were eager to point out Cantu published a set of "return to play" guidelines in 1986 — essentially a proposal to protect football players from brain trauma. Similar guidelines were finally adopted by both the NFL and NCAA in 2010. Cantu suggested that move came too late.

"They missed an opportunity," Cantu testified. "An opportunity that shouldn’t have been missed."

Although researchers have long linked the sport of boxing to some kind of brain disease — hence the term "punch drunk" — scientists didn't connect CTE to football until 2005, when Dr. Bennet Omalu published a paper on the subject. That was 13 years after Gee stopped playing.

"My eyes weren’t open to CTE in football until 2005," Cantu said. But, he added, "the bad effects of brain trauma were well-known for a long time."

Dr. Omalu, who was portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film, "Concussion," is expected to offer expert testimony later in the trial.

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