A degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been linked to head injuries suffered by college and professional football players, among other people with a history of repetitive trauma. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has faced numerous lawsuits in recent years over its alleged failure to protect football players from repeated head trauma while playing the sport. Last week, one of these cases reached a jury verdict for the first time.
This case involved Matthew Gee, a linebacker who played for the University of Southern California between 1988 and 1992. He helped USC win a Rose Bowl in 1990. Gee tragically passed away at the age of 49 after struggling with substance abuse. An examination of his brain by the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center at Boston University revealed that he had suffered from CTE. The lawsuit alleged that Gee engaged in substance abuse due to the brain damage caused by the thousands of hits that he had received while playing for USC. (Studies have linked brain trauma with a greater risk of substance abuse.) According to the attorneys for his widow, this meant that the head trauma indirectly caused his death. Gee’s widow sought $55 million in damages. Her lawyers asserted that the NCAA knew about the problems caused by head injuries since the 1930s but did not tell players about the risks, adjust rules to prohibit head-to-head contact, or test players for concussion symptoms.
The NCAA and its lawyers responded that Gee died from cardiac arrest caused by problems with blood pressure and his cocaine use. It also claimed that he ultimately would have died anyway from other health conditions that he had developed, such as liver cirrhosis. The NCAA thus argued that the scientific evidence in this case did not adequately show causation, as it has argued in similar cases. In addition, its lawyers pointed out that CTE was first discovered in the brain of an NFL player in 2005, long after Gee played at USC. They emphasized that the NCAA should not be held responsible for failing to address a problem of which it was unaware. Gee never reported a concussion and said after his college career ended that he had never been knocked unconscious. However, a teammate told the jury that Gee was so dazed after one hit that he could not call the next play.
A jury in Los Angeles ultimately ruled in favor of the NCAA. This could have a significant impact on cases like these. If the jury had ruled for Gee’s widow, the NCAA might have been forced to settle many cases on terms favorable to plaintiffs, rather than risking a massive damages award at a trial. Instead, plaintiffs and their attorneys will be less likely to go to trial, and the NCAA might be able to settle cases more favorably.
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