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An LA jury rules the NCAA is not responsible for the death of a college football player

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A jury in Los Angeles has found that the NCAA is not responsible for the death of a college football player. The wife of a former USC linebacker, Matthew Gee, who died in 2018, filed a wrongful death lawsuit claiming that CTE contributed to her husband's early death. CTE is a form of traumatic brain injury. This is the first case of its kind to reach a verdict. Joining us now is Los Angeles Times sports editor Steve Henson. Steve, thanks for being here.

STEVE HENSON: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is a civil case, not a criminal case. What was the jury asked to decide specifically?

HENSON: Well, this was a landmark case. And there was - it was the first lawsuit against the NCAA in which a jury decided whether hits to the head in college football led to CTE and death. There's been other cases that have been settled before trial. And according to experts, many more are being prepared by plaintiffs who believe the NCAA should be held accountable for the repetitive brain trauma they or family members suffered while playing college football. But the jury was asked a couple questions. Did the NCAA bear responsibility for Matt Gee's death? And did medical science link Matt Gee's death to his college football career?

MARTIN: And the answers to those questions?

HENSON: Yeah. So it's a civil case, so - rather than criminal. So the standard was not beyond a reasonable doubt. It was a preponderance of the evidence, meaning 51%. Still, the verdict was a resounding no. The trial took a month, with numerous expert witnesses testifying for both sides. It was a complex case. And the jury took all of one day to render a verdict.

MARTIN: So if this case is being looked at as, perhaps, a bellwether for whether or not the league should be responsible for these kinds of injuries, I mean, were the circumstances of this case such that it was a good model?

HENSON: You know, it really wasn't. And in speaking to experts in the CTE world, they kind of saw problems with this case from the outset. It was a bit muddied. And the problem was that Matt Gee had many health issues besides CTE that the NCAA expert witnesses could say caused or contributed to his death, which was ruled by the coroner to be caused by cardiac arrest and that acute alcohol and cocaine toxicity were contributing factors. So testimony established that he had untreated hypertension, coronary artery disease. His heart was enlarged. He had advanced liver disease, untreated sleep apnea. He was obese. So there was all these other factors that could have contributed to his death that I think made it difficult for the jury to just hone in on the CTE.

MARTIN: So how important are these discussions about head injuries for the next generation of college and university players?

HENSON: You know, the NCAA is the governing body of college athletics. And so a lot of their experts during the trial sort of passed the buck to the member schools, saying that the schools are responsible for player safety, not the governing body - that the schools are where team doctors and athletic trainers and day-to-day contact with athletes takes place, and that that is where the responsibility should be. I'm not sure. A lot of the folks that were involved with the trial wouldn't speak until it was over. And I'll do some reporting. But I'm interested to know why the member schools aren't being sued. And it's the governing body that seems to be the target of most of these lawsuits.

MARTIN: Has there been any response from the NCAA itself to the verdict?

HENSON: Well, they said it was the right verdict. Yeah. Their legal counsel came out with a statement, said the right call was made.

MARTIN: What about the family?

HENSON: Well, Alana Gee, Matt Gee's widow, who was the plaintiff in this case, was teary-eyed. She had nothing to say right after the verdict. And then they have three children as well. They're adult children at this point. And no one commented yet. But some experts believe this case established a foundation for negligence in future cases because a lot of the same expert witnesses would be testifying in another case as well. It's a finite group of witnesses.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. LA Times sports editor Steve Henson, thanks.

HENSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.