Concussion and college football: trial begins


A Los Angeles jury on Friday heard opening statements in the case of a widow of a former University of Southern California football player who is suing the NCAA for failing to protect her husband from repeated head injuries.

Matthew Gee died in 2018 at the age of 49 from permanent brain damage caused by numerous blows to the head while playing linebacker for the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning team, according to the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Alana Gee.

The jury of eight women and six men, along with Gee and two of her three children, listened to lengthy opening statements from both sides in Los Angeles Superior Court.

At times, Gee and her daughter Melia would dab their eyes with tissues while lawyers recounted her husband’s life and his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.

One of Gee’s attorneys, Justin Shrader, said she is seeking $1.8 million in damages based on her husband’s life expectancy. He said Gee is also seeking damages for wrongful death, loss of the company of her husband and a survivability claim for Gee.

“Alana wants to be one of the last widows to find out college football can cause CTE,” Shrader said, referring to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.

Of the hundreds of wrongful death and assault lawsuits filed by college football players against the NCAA over the past decade, Gees is only the second to go to court with allegations that hits to the head led to CTE. It could be the first to reach a jury.

“This case is a big deal,” said attorney Will Stute, who represents the NCAA.

The NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics in the United States, said it was not responsible for Gee’s husband’s death, which it blamed on heavy drinking, drugs and other health problems.

“We believe the evidence will show that it was impossible for Matthew Gee to take the risk of degenerative brain disease because the NCAA still believes it doesn’t exist,” said Bill Horton, another attorney for Gee.

Stute later countered, saying, “I won’t tell you that the NCAA denies that CTE is a real medical problem, but there’s still no consensus in the medical community as to what causes CTE.” The NCAA has always followed science and will continue to do so. “

The defense has attempted to rule out any testimony about Gee’s teammates, and the NCAA said there was no medical evidence he suffered concussions at USC.

“This case is not about concussions,” Stute told the jury. “We’ve heard a lot about concussions. There is no evidence Matthew Gee was ever diagnosed with a concussion and he has never reported a concussion.”

“There is nothing the NCAA could have done to prevent Gee’s death,” Stute said.

Horton disagreed, telling the jury, “We believe he suffered a series of concussions at USC and was never warned about what could happen later in life.”

The issue of concussions in sport, and football in particular, has been a focus in recent years as research has uncovered more about the long-term effects of repeated head injuries on problems ranging from headaches to depression and sometimes early onset Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2018 trial in Texas resulted in a quick settlement after several days of testifying for the widow of Greg Ploetz, who played defense for Texas in the late 1960s.

In 2016, the NCAA agreed to settle a concussion class-action lawsuit, paying $70 million for health monitoring of former college athletes, $5 million for medical research, and payments of up to $5,000 to individuals Players who claimed injuries.

Stute told the jury that he was focusing on the years from 1988 to 1992 when Gee played for the Trojans.

“Evidence shows that CTE was only detected in a soccer player in 2005,” he said. “But somehow the NCAA should be warning people about an as yet unidentified disease.”

Struck by similar concussions, the NFL eventually agreed to a settlement that covered 20,000 retired players and provided up to $4 million for a death with CTE found in athletes and military veterans who suffered repeat brain injuries. Age-65 payouts for six qualifying terms are expected to exceed $1.4 billion.

After years of denial, the NFL admitted in 2016 that research from Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center showed a link between football and CTE, which has been linked to memory loss, depression and progressive dementia. It can only be diagnosed after death.

The center found CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players and 48 of 53 former college players, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Hall of Famers diagnosed after death include Ken Stabler and Mike Webster, as well as Junior Seau, a teammate of Gee at USC.

The NCAA, which required schools to have a concussion protocol in 2010, said the long-term effects of head injuries were not well understood at the time Gee played.

Alana Gee donated her late husband’s brain to Boston University’s CTE Center, which confirmed he had grade 2 CTE, a lower grade of the disease.

Gee’s preliminary cause of death was listed as the combined toxic effects of alcohol and cocaine with other significant medical conditions including cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis and obesity.

Stute showed the summary of the medical records of Boston University’s Matthew Gee, which also noted that he had Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a rare congenital vascular disease that causes chronic pain.

“We think the substance abuse problems stemmed from his CTE, affecting the brain first before other things happened,” Horton said.

Mare said the defense believes the key question is what killed Gee. He proceeded to show Gee’s medical records, which noted his use of marijuana, LSD and cocaine, and alcohol.

“He hid his alcohol and drug use from his family and his doctors,” Stute said. “He continued drinking after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and liver disease. It’s not Mr. Gee’s fault. It’s just the facts.”


Associated Press writer Brian Melley contributed to this report.