Bill O’Brien’s professional responsibilities grew exponentially when he took on his first head coaching job in January 2012.
It didn’t take him long to zero in on his primary point of focus.
“At the top of that responsibility list is taking care of Penn State’s players,” O’Brien 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. It’s not near the top, it’s not around the top, it’s at the top. For anyone to suggest or perhaps accuse that anyone within Penn State’s athletic program would do otherwise is irresponsible, reckless and wrong.”
O’Brien was fuming, speaking in amplified tones as he answered questions related to a Sports Illustrated story that cast the program’s 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 team’s orthopedic consultant. Dr. Peter Seidenberg, associate professor of orthopedics and a primary care sports medicine physician for Penn State Hershey’s orthopedic practice in State College, is the team’s 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 story’s 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)niversity’s entire medical program for intercollegiate athletics, including football. In addition, the university athletic trainer reported directly to Dr. Sebastianelli, who supervised the trainer’s work. A review shows Penn State’s medical coverage is on par with, or exceeds, peer institutions.”
Epstein stood by his story in an interview with the Centre Daily Times.
“I don’t 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 don’t think the idea was to say that it’s a bad system but it’s a change to less coverage and to raise the question of whether that’s 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.”
O’Brien 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. O’Brien recommended changes after being asked to examine and evaluate every facet of the Penn State football program when he was hired. O’Brien said he recommended changes to Joyner and Erickson following his first season as coach.
O’Brien refused to discuss personnel decisions and wouldn’t 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,” O’Brien 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 Joyner’s ascension to athletic director. Previously, Joyner, who played football and wrestled for Penn State, had been on Penn State’s board of trustees and had no experience in athletics management.
O’Brien took offense to the story’s harsh characterization of Joyner.
“What that article was to me was a character assassination on Dave Joyner,” O’Brien 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, “It’s terribly unfortunate some want to make baseless accusations. We refuse to engage in a such a conversation.”
In an additional statement released after the story’s 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 won’t 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? That’s preposterous,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he was dismayed that large portions of quotes supplied by Dr. Harold Paz, dean of the College of Medicine, weren’t used in the SI story. Paz released another statement after the story’s publication in which he defended the current structuring of Penn State’s 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 isn’t 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.”