UNIVERSITY PARK — Bill OBriens professional responsibilities grew exponentially when he took on his first head coaching job in January 2012.
It didnt take him long to zero in on his primary point of focus.
At the top of that responsibility list is taking care of Penn States players, OBrien said in a fiery conference call with beat reporters Wednesday. The student-athletes in this football program are the No. 1 priority to me. Their health and safety is the No. 1 priority to me. Its not near the top, its not around the top, its at the top. For anyone to suggest or perhaps accuse that anyone within Penn States athletic program would do otherwise is irresponsible, reckless and wrong.
OBrien was fuming, speaking in amplified tones as he answered questions related to a Sports Illustrated story that cast the programs reorganization of its medical staff in a negative light.
Longtime team physician and surgeon Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli was replaced in February by two doctors to take on each role individually. Dr. Scott Lynch, associate professor of orthopedics and director of orthopedic sports medicine at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, is now the teams orthopedic consultant. Dr. Peter Seidenberg, associate professor of orthopedics and a primary care sports medicine physician for Penn State Hersheys orthopedic practice in State College, is the teams physician.
Sebastianelli is still the Director of Athletic Medicine at Penn State.
Meanwhile, Penn State continued to dispute the story by SI senior writer David Epstein titled What Still Ails Penn State with a teaser from the cover that reads: Do athletics still have too much power at Penn State?
The article fundamentally distorts the facts, Penn State said in an additional release sent after the storys publication. There has been no change in the model of medical care for our student-athletes. The allegations on why the change in team physician was made is ludicrous. Worst of all, the article ignores the fact that Dr. Sebastianelli remains the doctor in charge of the (u)niversitys entire medical program for intercollegiate athletics, including football. In addition, the university athletic trainer reported directly to Dr. Sebastianelli, who supervised the trainers work. A review shows Penn States medical coverage is on par with, or exceeds, peer institutions.
Epstein stood by his story in an interview with the Centre Daily Times.
I dont think the intent was to say that the system in itself is a problem, Epstein said. We did ask every institution in the Big Ten for their systems and I dont think the idea was to say that its a bad system but its a change to less coverage and to raise the question of whether thats a decision that should be made by members of the athletic department and whether it was one that was made by the right people and for the right reasons.
OBrien was quick to point out that hiring and firing of doctors is not part of his job responsibilities. Instead, that falls to higher-ups including Director of Athletics Dr. David Joyner and President Rodney Erickson. OBrien recommended changes after being asked to examine and evaluate every facet of the Penn State football program when he was hired. OBrien said he recommended changes to Joyner and Erickson following his first season as coach.
OBrien refused to discuss personnel decisions and wouldnt go into specifics as to why he recommended certain changes out of respect for those affected by them.
In order to fulfill my role as the head football coach, I need to assemble what I feel is the right team, OBrien said. The right team of coaches, the right team of strength coaches, the right team of academic people my recommendations there the right team of administrative assistants, the right team of recruiting personnel, the right team of janitors. These are the things that are under my responsibility as the head football coach at Penn State, including my recommendations and observations of the medical staff.
The SI story describes a fierce personal rivalry between Sebastianelli and Joyner that developed after Sebastianelli was hired in his previous position in 1992 rather than Joyner, an orthopedic physician, who wanted the job.
The story also questions Joyners ascension to athletic director. Previously, Joyner, who played football and wrestled for Penn State, had been on Penn States board of trustees and had no experience in athletics management.
OBrien took offense to the storys harsh characterization of Joyner.
What that article was to me was a character assassination on Dave Joyner, OBrien said. The care for our players medically is superb.
Epstein responded to the criticism, telling the CDT that a number of sources he talked to for the story were concerned that Joyner had a conflict of interest in relieving Sebastianelli of his duties. Sebastianelli did not comment on Joyner for the SI story.
I brought those concerns to Dr. Joyner and he declined (comment), Epstein said.
Joyner instead provided a statement to SI in which he said, Its terribly unfortunate some want to make baseless accusations. We refuse to engage in a such a conversation.
In an additional statement released after the storys publication, Joyner commented further.
As athletic director for Penn State, my first priority is the welfare of our student-athletes, Joyner said. All decisions are, and have been, made with that first and foremost as the goal. Any changes that were made were done for, and only for, the benefit of the student-athletes, the football program, and for Penn State. Any characterization otherwise is appalling, offensive, preposterous and completely untrue. Change is never easy, but that wont prevent us from doing the right thing for our student-athletes.
Although the SI story mentions the reduction in medical coverage for Penn State players based on what the university had done in the past, the university released information it gathered over the winter months.
Penn State recently completed a benchmarking process to see how its medical programs compared with other top college football programs in the country. Seven other universities were contacted and, when compared, Penn State players access to team doctors meets or exceeds all seven, according to the Penn State data.
Penn State players, in addition to Ohio State players, have access to their team physician at every practice and game. Meanwhile, only LSU provides as much access, with its team physician being available four days a week during active football periods. Meanwhile, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa reported their team physicians are available three days a week.
As for access to team surgeons, Penn State said it has an orthopedic physician available at all Wednesday practices and a surgeon is available after practices on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and on Sundays following games. In comparison, only Iowa and Michigan State players have as frequent access to an orthopedic physician.
At 65 scholarships, you think for one second that I would jeopardize the health and safety of this football team? With 65 kids on scholarship? Thats preposterous, OBrien said.
OBrien said he was dismayed that large portions of quotes supplied by Dr. Harold Paz, dean of the College of Medicine, werent used in the SI story. Paz released another statement after the storys publication in which he defended the current structuring of Penn States medical staff.
The article suggests that the quality of care provided to Penn State student athletes has been jeopardized by a change in team physicians. It simply isnt the case, Paz said in the statement. Drs. Seidenberg and Lynch, the physicians now responsible for the day-to-day care of Penn State football players, are both experienced clinicians, fellowship-trained in sports medicine and committed to providing expert medical care to our students athletes. Any suggestion that care is being compromised by the change in physician assignments is both unsubstantiated and incorrect.