Jury: NCAA not guilty in death of ex-USC football player

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LOS ANGELES — In a verdict that could affect countless claims from athletes suing sports organizations for head injuries, a Los Angeles jury Tuesday dismissed a $55 million lawsuit by the widow of a former USC 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, took an estimated 6,000 hits as a college athlete, his widow’s lawyers said. They claimed that these effects caused permanent brain damage and led to cocaine and alcohol abuse that eventually took his life at age 49.

The NCAA, the governing body of American college sports, said it had nothing to do with Gee’s death, saying it was sudden cardiac arrest caused by untreated hypertension and acute cocaine poisoning. An NCAA attorney said Gee suffered from many other health problems unrelated to , such as cirrhosis of the liver, from which he would eventually have died.

Hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA by college players over the past decade, but Gee’s was the first to reach a jury. The lawsuit alleged that blows to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known by the abbreviation CTE.

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Judge Terry Green told Los Angeles Superior Court jurors that they “made history” in the first case of its kind.

The result could serve as a warning to lawyers preparing to take similar cases to court, said Dan Lust, a sports lawyer and professor at New York Law School. Before the trial, he had said a Gee win could have opened the floodgates against the NCAA. Now the NCAA has more leverage in future cases.

“Any plaintiff’s attorney will think twice before putting all the chips on the table and sliding them to the center and saying, ‘We’re going to take our case to court and see what happens,'” Lust said. “You’ll be much less likely to take that risk from a cost-benefit perspective.”

Alana Gee choked when the verdict was read and had tears in her eyes afterwards. She told one of her lawyers that she couldn’t understand how the jury reached that decision, but personally thanked the seven women and five men as they left the courtroom. She declined to comment afterwards.

“We feel deep sympathy for the Gee family from the start,” Will Stute, the NCAA attorney, said afterwards. “But we feel that this verdict reaffirms the position we took in all of these cases, which was that science and medicine did not support causation in Matthew Gee’s circumstance.”

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Stute had argued that medical evidence is not clear about the cause of CTE and the consequences of that disease.

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.

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.

The NCAA said the case depended on what it knew at the time Gee played, from 1988-92, 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, 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.”

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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 consequences of head injuries since the 1930s but failed to educate players, head-first contact or perform baseline tests for concussion symptoms.

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