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Trial over NCAA liability in death of former USC linebacker kicks off

A jury will have to decide whether the death of Matt Gee, 26 years after he last played college football, was caused by injuries his widow claims he sustained playing for USC.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The widow of a former University of Southern California linebacker wants a jury to hold the National Collegiate Athletic Association liable for the death of her husband, which she claims was ultimately caused by brain injuries he suffered playing college football.

Matt Gee was just 49 when he died in 2018, 26 years after he last played for USC. His family donated his brain to a research program at Boston University where it was determined that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

Gee's widow claims the NCAA knew for decades about the debilitating long-term dangers of traumatic brain injuries such as concussions but recklessly disregarded this information to protect its very profitable college football business — and kept athletes in the dark about the risks.

"This is the first time a jury will decide what the NCAA knew and when they knew it," Bill Horton, one of Alana Gee's attorneys, told the jurors in downtown Los Angeles in his opening statement Friday.

Claims the NCAA and the National Football League failed to protect athletes from the long-term effects of concussive head injuries have multiplied in the last decade. In 2014, the NCAA agreed to a $75 million settlement with college athletes who claimed the league put their health at risk by leaving concussion policies up to the individual schools. The NCAA didn't admit wrongdoing or liability as part of that settlement which provides monitoring for athletes.

The NCAA was created in 1906, Horton told the jury, to protect students' health and safety because football at the time was brutal and resulted in dozens of deaths and even more serious injuries as players were literally trying to hurt each other. As far as back as the 1920s, there was reason to believe there was a connection between getting hit in the head repeatedly and brain injury, as in the case of punch-drunk boxers, the lawyer said.

As more evidence emerged throughout the 20th century about the risks of undiagnosed and multiple concussions, the NCAA failed to implement and enforce adequate procedures to protect football players from the long-term dangers associated with them — which ultimately resulted in the death of Gee, Horton said.

Specifically, Gee's CTE caused him first to become forgetful and frustrated. But as it progressed, it affected his impulse control and he began to abuse alcohol and cocaine. On New Year's Eve 2018 he drank and drugged himself to death, Horton said.

The circumstances of Gee's untimely death were tragic, but it showed that it wasn't playing football that killed him, Will Stute, a lawyer representing the NCAA, said in his opening statement.

Stute showed the jury Gee's death certificate that showed he died of of heart failure as a result of the combined effects of alcohol and cocaine as well as underlying hypertension, heart disease and liver damage, among other health conditions.

According to the NCAA's lawyer, Gee's deteriorating cognitive capacities were caused by his liver cirrhosis, which caused toxins that weren't filtered by his liver to accumulate in his brain. When Gee took medication to treat this, his mental capacities improved, which couldn't happen if the deterioration had been caused by CTE, Slute said. However, Gee didn't continue the medication according to medical records shown the jury.

Furthermore, Slute said, recent research found that the low-level CTE discovered in Gee's brain has no known symptoms, such as substance abuse, and the Boston University specialist who examined Gee's brain acknowledged in his deposition that the low-level CTE didn't kill Gee.

CTE was documented in a football player only in 2005, Slute told the jurors. The brain disease can only be diagnosed through autopsy after death. That raised the question how the NCAA could have warned Gee against the risk of CTE when it wasn't even on the radar in 1988 through 1992 when Gee played for USC, the lawyer said.

In August, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry Green allowed the case to proceed to trial despite his skepticism of the claim that it was playing college football that caused Gee's CTE, since, according to the judge, there was no evidence he suffered any head injuries while at USC.

"To avoid a nonsuit at trial, plaintiff will have to find some evidence of a specific, identifiable head injury suffered by Mr. Gee while playing or practicing for USC," Green said in his Aug. 4 ruling. "In the absence of such evidence, plaintiff would simply be asking a jury to look at Mr. Gee's death, look at the several possible causes of his CTE, and pick one. That is not a trial; it is a game of darts."

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