LOS ANGELES — The widow of a former University of Southern California football player suing the NCAA for failing to protect her husband from repetitive head trauma is taking what could be a landmark case to a Los Angeles jury Friday.
Matthew Gee died in 2018 from permanent brain damage caused by countless blows to the head he took while playing linebacker for the 1990 Rose Bowl winning team, according to the wrongful death suit filed by Alana Gee.
Of the hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits brought by college football players against the NCAA in the past decade, Gee’s is only the second to go to trial alleging that hits to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. It could be the first to reach a jury.
“For years (the NCAA) has kept players like Matthew Gee and the public in the dark about an epidemic that was slowly killing college athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Long after they played their last game, they are left with a series of neurological conditions that could slowly strangle their brains.”
The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics in the U.S., said it wasn’t responsible for Gee’s death, which it blamed on heavy drinking, drugs and other health problems.
"Mr. Gee used alcohol and drugs to cope with a traumatic childhood, to fill in the loss of identity he felt after his football playing days ended, and to numb the chronic and increasing pain caused by numerous health issues," NCAA lawyers wrote in a filing in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The issue of concussions in sports, and football in particular, has been front and center in recent years as research has discovered more about long-term effects of repeated head trauma in problems ranging from headaches to depression and, sometimes, early onset Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2018 trial in Texas led to a swift settlement after several days of testimony by witnesses for the widow of Greg Ploetz, who played defense for Texas in the late 1960s.
In 2016, the NCAA agreed to settle a class-action concussion lawsuit, paying $70 million to monitor former college athlete's medical conditions, $5 million toward medical research and payments of up to $5,000 toward individual players claiming injuries.
The NFL has been hit with similar suits and eventually agreed to a settlement covering 20,000 retired players providing up to $4 million for a death involving CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who suffered repetitive brain injuries. It's expected to exceed $1.4 billion in payouts over 65 years for six qualifying conditions.
After years of denials, the NFL acknowledged in 2016 that research done at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center showed a link between football and CTE, which is associated with memory loss, depression and progressive dementia.
The center has 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 and Junior Seau, a teammate of Gee's at USC.
Gee, 49, was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans squad who died before turning 50. As with Seau, who killed himself in 2012, Gee's brain was examined posthumously at BU and found to have CTE.
The defense has sought to exclude any testimony about Gee’s teammates and the NCAA said there was no medical evidence Gee suffered from concussions at USC.
Two ex-teammates, however, testified at depositions about blows they routinely took at a time when they were told to hit with their heads.
Mike Salmon, who went on to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, recalled Gee and other linebackers being “out of it” during hard-hitting practices.
“Matt hit like a truck," Salmon said. "I saw him quite a bit coming back to the huddle. You could tell ... he wasn’t all there.”
“It was our job to make helmet-to-helmet contact in the ’80s,” Gene Fruge, a former nose-tackle, testified. "There was no question about it. That was your job, to explode the man in front of you.”
The NCAA, which required schools in 2010 to have a concussion protocol, said long-term effects of head injuries weren't well understood at the time Gee played.
Gee's lawsuit said the debilitating effects of concussions and other traumatic brain impacts have been known for about a century, first from studies of “punch drunk” boxers and later from findings in football and other contact sports.
“The NCAA knew of the harmful effects ... on athletes for decades, they ignored these facts and failed to institute any meaningful methods of warning and/or protecting the athletes," the lawsuit said. “For the NCAA, the continued expansion and operation of college football was simply too profitable to put at risk.”
In his senior year, Gee was team captain and led USC in tackles, forced fumbles and fumbles recovered.
After graduating in 1992, Gee was cut by the Los Angeles Raiders in training camp. He married Alana, his college sweetheart, and they had three children as he ran his own insurance company in Southern California. For 20 years, he lived a “relatively normal” life, the suit said.
That changed around 2013, when he began to lose control of his emotions, the lawsuit said. He became angry, confused and depressed. He drank heavily. He told a doctor days would go by without him being able to recall what happened.
When he died on New Year's Eve 2018, the preliminary cause of death was listed as the combined toxic effects of alcohol and cocaine with other significant conditions of cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis and obesity.
Joseph Low, a Los Angeles lawyer for clients with traumatic brain injury who is not involved in the case, said drug and alcohol abuse can become a symptom of brain injuries as those suffering try to self-medicate. Blaming Gee’s death on substance abuse will not shield the NCAA from evidence showing he had CTE, which is not caused by drugs and alcohol, Low said.
“That’s a distraction," Low said. “It's really a disgusting way to do character assassination. It’s what you call defense strategy 101.”