The trial between the NCAA and the widow of former USC linebacker, Matt Gee, has seen about a week of testimony, and we have learned a lot about the NCAA.
To recap, in only the second concussion lawsuit to go to trial (and potentially the first to go to a jury) Alana Gee is suing the NCAA for the wrongful death of her late husband, Matt Gee, alleging that the NCAA had information and “superior knowledge” regarding head injuries occurring in NCAA football.
Dr. Julie Schwartzbard Testifies
Gee died after turning to heavy drugs and alcohol because of his CTE. This is one of the main issues in the case, what caused his death, CTE or his life decisions? During the trial, Ventura County Medical Examiner testified to the cause of death in the medical examiner’s autopsy of Gee. This determined that the causes of death were a combination of alcohol and drug use, cardio vascular disease, liver problems, and obesity. The NCAA hammered down this point, maintaining that this is what caused him to die, not CTE. While true in a way, Gee’s star witness Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, a neurological expert, stated that brain injuries like CTE have a direct link to substance abuse, which in turn is linked to Gee’s death. In sum, Gee is not necessarily debating that Gee died from the causes reported in his autopsy, but rather the things that the autopsy reported were caused by CTE. That may be a question that the jury needs to answer, but where do they draw the line? Are they allowed to say that a cause of death is caused by something else? If so, that bodes well for Gee’s case.
The other large part of this case is the claim that the NCAA had “superior knowledge” of the risks of football and brain injuries. Throughout the first week of the trial, many studies have been discussed. Most notably, the NCAA contends that CTE has been seen in cases that do not have to do with repetitive head trauma and that there is no consensus in the medical community of what causes CTE. This was refuted by a Harvard Study that Schwartzbard discussed, where it shows that repetitive head trauma is a “necessary condition” for CTE; she restates this point, saying that this means you cannot get CTE without it.
Schwartzbard was very strong on her stances directly connecting CTE to football and repetitive head trauma. While being cross examined by the defense, she stated that there is a very good understanding of CTE, despite studies still being in early stages. Additionally, Schwartzbard definitively said that playing college football was a substantial cause of Gee’s CTE. Schwartzbard’s testimony was very compelling in that while she is an expert in herself, she also cited and discussed studies performed by other organizations to show some consensus in the medical community.
Former Teammate Mike Salmon
Another witness that the plaintiff called was Gee’s former teammate, Mike Salmon. Salmon’s testimony was graphic and helped paint a picture for the jury of just how violent playing football at USC was, and how careless the football staff were with player health and safety. Salmon specifically discussed a popular drill at the time that has now fallen out of favor due to its dangerousness, the Oklahoma Drill. In this drill, players would consistently have the “most violent collision you can have.” He described how these drills set players up for failure, as they were essentially encouraged by their coaches to hit with their head. Salmon testified how Gee took especially violent hits, resulting in divots and cracks in his helmet. Salmon also talked about how Gee often times continued to play “even if he wasn’t there”.
Salmon then detailed the lack of care that USC gave to players in regard to head injuries. He talks about how he saw Gee and others suffer injuries many times (himself included, suffering 40-60 head injuries a year), and they were not advised to see doctors. Rather, they were welcomed back into the game, sometimes almost guilted into it by coaches who said they needed the players to play. Salmon testified that USC did have doctors on the field though, however these doctors just walked around with shots and pills to numb the pain players had so they could continue to put themselves in danger.
Salmon also discussed the lack of information the NCAA provided them regarding head injuries. He said that they were never made aware of a form of tackling that was banned because it made players susceptible to head injuries. Additionally, he was never provided a handbook on player health and safety, and he did not recall the NCAA every giving them any information on concussions.
Medical Historian Shows That The NCAA Had Early Knowledge of Concussions
Additional key testimony from medical historian Stephen Casper discussed key early dates that the NCAA acknowledged head injuries to combat the NCAA’s statement that they had no superior knowledge. Casper testified that: 1) in 1933 the NCAA Sports Injuries handbook discussed concussions, 2) a 1968 article in the NCAA News discussed concussions, 3) there is evidence that the NCAA began collecting data for concussions in 1982, and 4) an article in 1986 in the NCAA News states that players should not return to games with head injuries until they are medically cleared.
Of the most shocking things revealed so far was that the NCAA only spent 1%-2% (based on how you calculate it, which was contested) of their annual revenue on player health and safety (until they stopped tracking it in 1982), an incredibly low percentage when you think about how violent of a sport football is and how the NCAA is supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the players.
The Gee side seems to be making a very strong case so far. They have shown evidence that the NCAA had knowledge of concussions and the seriousness of them, and they have shown a clear neglect on the NCAA’s part in regard to player safety. While it seems like this is all good news for Gee’s case, it is still going to be pivotal for Gee’s side to convince the jury that the CTE directly caused Gee’s cause of death as reported in his autopsy, because without this, the rest of their points may be moot.
Depending on how the trail continues to go, if the NCAA does not feel confident about their chances, it is likely that they will do everything in their power to settle this case to avoid a negative precedent. Alternatively, a jury verdict in favor of the NCAA saying that Gee’s death was not directly from CTE could be very damaging for future concussion and CTE lawsuits.