LOS ANGELES -- Attorneys asked a jury Monday to award $55 million to the widow of a former USC football player in a landmark case accusing the NCAA of failing to protect him from repetitive head trauma that led to his death.
Matthew Gee, a hard-hitting linebacker who was on the 1990 Rose Bowl-winning squad, endured countless blows that caused permanent brain damage and led to cocaine and alcohol abuse that eventually killed him at age 49, his lawyers said in closing arguments. His widow, Alana Gee, was in the courtroom Monday.
In the first case of its kind to go to a jury, the attorneys told Los Angeles Superior Court jurors that the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics in the U.S., had known about effects of head trauma in sports since the 1930s but failed for decades to notify players of the risks or put rules in place to protect players.
“You cannot bring Matt back but you can say what the NCAA did to him was wrong,” attorney Bill Horton said. “Put this on the NCAA's radar. ... This is the only way they will ever listen.”
A lawyer for the NCAA said Gee experienced a sudden cardiac death brought on by long-standing hypertension and acute cocaine toxicity. He discussed a raft of Gee's other serious health problems, which he said were not related to football.
“The NCAA had nothing to do with the things that tragically took Mr. Gee’s life,” attorney Will Stute said.
The issue of concussions in sports, and football in particular, has been front and center in recent years as research has discovered more about long-term effects of repeated head trauma in problems ranging from headaches to depression and, sometimes, early onset Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
The monthlong trial is one of hundreds of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits brought by college football players against the NCAA in the past decade.
But Gee’s is only the second case to go to trial with allegations that hits to the head led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. A 2018 case in Texas settled a few days into the trial.
Gee was one of five linebackers on the 1989 Trojans squad who died before turning 50. As with teammate and NFL star Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012, Gee’s brain was examined posthumously at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and found to have CTE.
CTE is associated with memory loss, depression and progressive dementia. It can only be diagnosed after death.
Boston University has found CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players and 48 of 53 former college players, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Hall of Famers diagnosed after death include Ken Stabler and Mike Webster.
In his senior year, Gee was team captain and led USC in tackles, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
Gee married Alana, his college sweetheart, after graduating in 1992, and they lived a normal life for 20 years. They raised three children as he ran a successful insurance company in Southern California.
But things took a turn around 2013, when he began to lose control of his emotions, according to the lawsuit. He became angry, confused and depressed. He drank heavily. He told a doctor he forgot entire days.
Attorneys for Gee said that CTE, which is found in athletes and military veterans who suffered repetitive brain injuries, was an indirect cause of death because head trauma has been shown to promote substance abuse.
Stute said the wrongful death case was about what caused Gee's death and not whether CTE exists, which he said is still a hypothesis.
After years of denials, the NFL acknowledged in 2016 that BU’s research showed a link between football and CTE. The league agreed to settle head injury cases covering 20,000 retired players providing up to $4 million for a death involving CTE. It’s expected to exceed $1.4 billion in payouts over 65 years for six qualifying conditions.
In 2016, the NCAA agreed to settle a class-action concussion lawsuit, paying $70 million to monitor former college athletes’ medical conditions, $5 million toward medical research, and payments of up to $5,000 toward individual players claiming injuries.
Gee never reported having a concussion and he said in an application to play with the Raiders after graduating that he had never been knocked unconscious, Stute said.
He said the NCAA was being placed in a position of having to defend itself from allegations it was unaware of at the time, noting that CTE had not been discovered until 2005. He said nothing the NCAA could have done would have kept Gee alive today.
“You can’t hold the NCAA responsible for something 40 years later that nobody ever reported,” Stute said. “The plaintiffs want you in a time travel machine. We don’t have one … at the NCAA. It’s not fair.”
A former NFL official who reviewed all available tapes of Gee’s USC games said he was tackled in a safe manner without using his head, and there were no signs of head injuries, Stute said.
Horton countered that at the time Gee played, the NCAA didn't share what it knew about medical risks of repetitive head injuries, didn't prevent players from returning to the field after injuries, and didn't limit the number of practices despite recommendations to do so, Horton said.
As he showed photos of Gee at his wedding and holding his young daughter in a pink tutu, Horton choked up, noting that Tuesday would have been Gee's birthday.
“Deliver a verdict ... so he didn't die for nothing," Horton said. “So every 18-year-old kid who plays football will know the dangers of the game they're playing.”