The NCAA withheld critical information for decades about the risks of brain damage associated with playing football, according to a grieving widow who believes she has the smoking gun document to prove it.
Kelly Merlino hit the NCAA with a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court last month, accusing college athletics’ top oversight organization of fraud and gross negligence in the 2021 death of her husband Gene Merlino, who died suddenly at age 55 after suffering at least 14 concussions as a fullback for the Army in the mid-1980s.
A key piece of evidence she hopes will be a game-changer is a 50-year-old letter sent by an NCAA lawyer to college football’s then-top rules maker, advising him to blow off warnings by medical experts to stop permitting helmet-first tackling in games and practice.
“In my opinion, any heed paid to their suggestions will destroy present day football as we know it,” NCAA lawyer Donald Wilson writes to David Nelson, head of the organization’s Football Rules Committee in the March 13,1973 letter.
“They will not be satisfied in their suggested changes in the rules but will thereafter concentrate on arms, shoulders, knees, etc., all of which we readily understand are susceptible to injury in a game that the dangers of which are readily apparent and willingly accepted by those who participate and teach this beautiful Spartan game,” Wilson continued.
Wilson feared if such concerns were raised to the NCAA Football Rules Committee, they would be used as fodder for future lawsuits by injured players and their families — and potentially jeopardize the future of became NCAA’s biggest moneymaking sport.
“Kindly bear in mind that if any of their letter, speeches and/or reports are published in any periodicals, this will form the basis of devastating cross-examination of football coaches at all levels in the future,” he wrote.
Wilson wrote the letter nine years before Gene Merlino first suited up for Army, where he played from 1984 through 1986 — and more than four decades before the NCAA instituted concussion protocols to protect players in 2015.
“It is clear to me from the letter that the primary concern of the NCAA was protecting the game — not the individuals playing the game,” said Kelly Merlino, 55. “The consequences have been devastating to the players and their families.”
Her lawsuit contends playing football without proper medical protocols in place caused Gene to develop the “neurodegenerative brain disease” which led to his death. She also alleges the NCAA knew about the fatal link between football and brain disease since at least the early 1930s.
Prior to his death, Gene Merlino frequently spoke out about what he said were the dangers associated with college football.
Wilson’s warning was sparked by the legal team for Steven Mark, a Colgate University halfback paralyzed from the waist down due to injuries sustained in a 1965 freshman football scrimmage. Mark later filed a $3 million lawsuit against Colgate, leading his lawyers to express their concerns about “head tackling” in football and seek rule changes to make the sport safer.
Mark contended he was taught to tackle head-first at Colgate, but a 1972 jury ultimately found the university and its coaches weren’t at fault.
“The Wilson letter shows that lawyers for the NCAA influenced whether the NCAA would protect the game or protect the players,” said medical historian Stephen Casper, who is currently a professor of science history at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.
“The NCAA protected the game,” Casper continued. “It turned a blind eye to what it was supposed to do, which was to protect the players. Now, the NCAA is on the wrong end of 400 brain injury lawsuits in state courts around the country and many more aggregated in the federal district court in Chicago.”
Kelly Merlino is seeking unspecified damages.
The NCAA did not return messages.