A massive case regarding CTE and NCAA football has gone to trial for only the second time, as the widow (Alana Gee) of former USC linebacker Matt Gee is suing the NCAA for wrongful death in Los Angeles Superior Court. Gee was the fifth linebacker from the 1989 USC football team to die before the age of 50. The center of the argument that Gee’s widow is making is that the NCAA possessed “superior knowledge” about the serious risk that football posed to the brain, but it withheld that information from players, including when Gee was at USC, allowing him to play with concussions. The complaint further alleges that the NCAA implemented no protocols to protect the players. Gee passed away in 2018 as a result of his brain injuries. After his death, the BU CTE Center confirmed that Gee was suffering from CTE. Alana Gee is seeking $1.8M in damages as a result Matt Gee’s death because of the NCAA’s alleged wrongful conduct.
While the courts have seen many lawsuits relating to brain injuries, wrongful death and personal injury, only one other one has gone to trial, and it did not reach the jury. If this case goes to the jury, it will be the first jury verdict involving brain injuries and the NCAA in relation to football. In 2018, there was a similar trial in Dallas between the NCAA and the widow of former Texas football player, Greg Ploetz. That trial ended in a settlement, so there is no precedent on how this will be treated, and if it does go to the jury, it can help create precedent for the future.
The Trial Begins
In opening statements, the trial started with Gee’s attorney saying that among other things “The NCAA still believes [degenerative brain disease] doesn’t exist”, showing just how little they believe the NCAA has done to respond to concussion-related issues. The NCAA’s reply to this was that while it doesn’t deny the existence of CTE, it states that there is “no consensus in the medical community on what causes CTE.” Further, the NCAA’s attorney said that CTE was not discovered in a football player until 2005, so it would have been impossible for them to have “superior knowledge” of potential long term brain injuries and hide that from the players.
The NCAA’s opening stance here seems a bit dated. With all the research and evidence that has come out over the last 10 or so years, for the NCAA to state that there is no consensus in the medical community on what causes CTE is an interesting strategy. While there may not be an exact consensus on CTE overall, the data on CTE and football is still overwhelming. As much as the NFL continuously denied the link between CTE and football in the past, it eventually came to its senses as it was overwhelmed by the evidence in 2016, and it officially acknowledged this link. It has been 6 years since this significant NFL acknowledgement, so the fact the NCAA wants to try and dodge the inevitable by downplaying this link, is puzzling.
The NCAA is not completely denying CTE and its link to football, rather it is just saying that the connection cannot really be proven, especially not with what they knew in the 1980s and 1990s, when Gee was playing. The NCAA is doing its best to take this case as far away from concussions as it can. The NCAA’s counsel said, “This case is not about concussions. We’ve heard a lot of talk about concussions. There is no evidence that Matthew Gee was ever diagnosed with a concussion, never reported a concussion.” This seems like an ignorant argument to make, as he was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. Additionally, experts believe that CTE can be related to a player having many subconcussive hits over time.
The NCAA is pointing to other factors in Gee’s life that resulted in his death, like alcohol and drug abuse, things it says has nothing to do with football. However, this is not as clear of an argument as it may seem on the surface. While Gee did eventually turn to drugs and alcohol, Gee’s attorney says that this was directly because of his CTE and the worsening of his symptoms, something that is very common to people who suffer from CTE.
In addition to the damages that are being sought for the alleged wrongful death, Alana Gee is requesting for disgorgement, which is asking the NCAA to return all of the money that it has made as a result of its negligence, which could end up being hundreds of millions of dollars if the NCAA loses.
The NCAA Is Very Far Behind With Concussions
While in years past, the NCAA and NFL have haven seen concussions and CTE similarly, the NFL has more recently embraced the link between concussions and football and is trying to do all it can to try and understand and prevent concussions. The NCAA has not really shared this initiative on concussions. For example, while the NFL has been trying to get in front of it with its concussion protocols and other player safety measures (although it is still a work in progress, as evidenced by the Tua Tagovailoa situation), the NCAA does not even have an official concussion protocol; rather they require schools to implement their own concussion protocols that meet certain requirements. However, unlike the NFL’s protocol, there is no independent or disinterested party to make sure that these protocols are being followed, and schools are easily able to cheat the protocols for a competitive advantage, while risking their players’ long and short-term safety. While the NFL is not perfect, it at least acknowledges that work needs to be done, but the NCAA’s stance in this case makes it seem like it is not ready for this.
If the NCAA does not settle this case and allows it to go to the jury, a verdict in favor of Gee will open up the floodgates for similar litigation. Regardless of the outcome, the NCAA should be put on notice that it needs to do more and put better measures in place to help protect its players. The NCAA’s approach to concussion is consistent with its history of not being proactive. Just like with NIL, the NCAA continues to push off and punt on an important issue, but eventually it is going to catch up with them.
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