LOS ANGELES — A jury in Los Angeles on Tuesday rejected a claim from the widow of a former USC football player who said the NCAA failed to protect him from repeated head trauma that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a linebacker on the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning squad, suffered an estimated 6,000 hits that left permanent brain damage and led to cocaine and alcohol abuse that eventually cost him his life at age 49, lawyers for his widow.
The NCAA said it had nothing to do with Gee’s death, which it said was caused by sudden cardiac arrest caused by untreated hypertension and acute cocaine toxicity. A lawyer for the governing body of American college sports said Gee suffered from many other health problems unrelated to football, such as cirrhosis of the liver, from which he would eventually have died.
The verdict could have major implications for college athletes who blame the NCAA for head injuries.
Hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been filed by college football players against the NCAA over the past decade, but Gee’s is the first to reach a jury alleging that blows to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a known degenerative brain disease. by its acronym, CTE.
“We are pleased that after considering four weeks of evidence and testimony, the jury overwhelmingly agreed with our position in this case,” Scott Bearby, NCAA senior vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, said in a statement. “The NCAA bore no responsibility for Mr. Gee’s tragic death, and furthermore, the case was not supported by medical science linking Mr. Gee’s death to his college football career. We extend our deepest condolences to the family of the Lord Gee.”
The statement also said the organization “will continue to aggressively defend cases like this that falsely attempt to exploit the justice system to unfairly attack the NCAA.”
Alana Gee had testified that the college sweethearts had 20 good years of marriage before her husband’s mental health began to deteriorate and he became angry, depressed and impulsive, and began to overeat and abuse drugs and alcohol.
Attorneys for Gee said CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who have suffered repeated brain injuries, was an indirect cause of death because head trauma has been shown to promote substance abuse.
The NCAA said the case depended on what it knew at the time Gee played, from 1988 to ’92, and not on CTE, which was first discovered in the brain of a deceased NFL player in 2005.
Gee never reported having a concussion and said in an application to play with the Raiders after graduation that he was never knocked unconscious, NCAA attorney Will Stute said.
“You can’t hold the NCAA responsible for something 40 years later that no one ever reported,” Stute said in his closing argument. “The prosecutors want you in a time travel machine. We don’t have one at the NCAA. It’s not fair.”
Lawyers for Gee’s family said there was no doubt that Matt Gee suffered concussions and numerous sub-concussive blows.
Mike Salmon, a teammate who went on to play in the NFL, testified that Gee, who was team captain his senior year, was once so giddy from a hit that he couldn’t call the next play.
Gee was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans squad to die before turning 50. All showed signs of mental deterioration related to head trauma.
Like teammate and NFL star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, Gee’s brain was posthumously examined at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and found to have CTE.
Jurors were not allowed to hear testimony about Gee’s deceased teammates.
Alana Gee’s lawyers had argued that the NCAA, founded in 1906 for the safety of athletes, had known about the effects of head injuries since the 1930s but failed to train players, establish first contact prohibit or perform baseline tests for concussion.
Her lawyers had asked jurors to award $55 million to compensate for her loss.
Alana Gee had tears in her eyes and snorted as the verdict was read. She told one of her lawyers that she didn’t understand how the jury came to that decision and declined to comment afterwards.
“We feel deep sympathy for the Gee family from the start,” Stute, the NCAA attorney, said afterwards. “But we feel that this verdict is a confirmation of the position we have taken in all these cases.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.