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Widow of former West Point running back sues NCAA in Manhattan for wrongful death in concussion case

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp)

The widow of former West Point football player Gene Merlino — who died after suffering at least 14 concussions during his time on the field — is suing the NCAA on the eve of the second anniversary of the Army gridder’s July 2021 death.

The suit by Kelly Merlino in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges that the college sports group suppressed knowledge about the dangers of brain injury in football, leading to her husband’s death at the age of 55.

“The direct consequence of the NCAA’s misconduct was that Gene Merlino developed brain disease that manifest in a wide variety of symptoms, including self-medication, alcoholism, and an early death,” the suit reads.

The suit says Merlino’s symptoms included “brain damage, confusion, depression, and the self-medication that eventually killed him.”

The footballer’s cause of death is unclear. An online obituary said that he died suddenly two years ago, on July 9, 2021.

Merlino, who played for West Point from 1984 to 1986, was discharged from the Army because of the brain injuries he suffered as a player.

“I had 14 concussions that are confirmed,” Merlino told the Daily News in 2015. “I kept playing and I didn’t let myself heal.”

During Merlino’s time as an Army football player, the NCAA did not have a concussion protocol, the suit alleges — despite decades of medical evidence that repeated head injuries caused long-term neurological damage.

The organization’s own 1933 medical handbook detailed a rudimentary concussion protocol, according to the suit — but that was gone by the time a new edition was published in 1980.

“As of 1932, the NCAA knew not only of the link between football and latent brain disease, but the NCAA knew that the number of permitted concussions must be limited or the player might have to be banned from participation,” the suit reads.

“If the NCAA had acted on this knowledge, Gene Merino would not have sustained repeat concussions in the same game and practice, and [he] would not have sustained the latent brain disease he developed later in life that led to his death.”

”Gene Merlino repeatedly sustained mild and possibly moderate concussions in the same game and/or practice in NCAA football, yet never knew these were concussions,” the suit continues.

“Like every other NCAA Division I football player, Gene Merlino played through these injuries and was never removed from the field for examination, rest, and treatment.”

The organization, Merlino’s widow charges, willfully concealed the risk of brain damage from Merlino “and generations of young men.”

An NCAA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The organization settled a class action suit by current and former athletes in 2019, who made similar claims that the NCAA was negligent in its approach to concussion management.

Under the terms of the settlement, the NCAA agreed to pay for limited medical screening for athletes, but denied any liability or wrongdoing.

Merlino was among the athletes featured in “Casualties of the Gridiron,” a 2013 GQ Sports documentary detailing the effects of traumatic brain injuries on football players.

“I started getting concussions every practice,” he told interviewers. “I could look right in the mirror, and see I had no color in my eyes because my pupils were so dilated.”

“I just feel clouded, I feel fog, I feel bogged down,” Merlino told a medical professional in one segment. “When I’m able to have a few drinks … then it starts to, like, drain the sponge, if you will. I start to come out of it, I become clearer.”

Kelly Merlino’s lawsuit does not specify the damages it seeks.


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