Penn State’s war of words with Sports Illustrated was given a voice on Wednesday. A loud and very forceful voice.
Speaking with the volume and intensity that he might normally save for the field, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien denounced a Sports Illustrated report that asserts grudges and finances were behind the recent shakeup in the football medical team and questions whether the Nittany Lions are receiving worse care because of it.
“At the top of my responsibility list — at the top — is taking care of our players,” O’Brien said on a conference call. “That’s the number one priority to me, their health and safety. Not around the top. Not near the top. It’s at the top.
“For anyone to suggest otherwise — or perhaps outright accuse that anyone at Penn State (would want otherwise) — is irresponsible, reckless and wrong.”
The article painted an unflattering picture of Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner and mentioned minor allegations against Tim Bream, the football team’s head trainer.
Sources told the magazine that Joyner had disputes with former team physician Wayne Sebastianelli for years before Sebastianelli was removed from that position in February. Bream, a fellow Penn State grad who worked with Joyner previously, is said by the article to have overstepped his bounds in providing treatment to players in the past year.
Sebastianelli, a Valley View High School graduate, remains employed at Penn State as the director of athletic medicine for all sports. Peter Seidenberg has since been named the football team’s physician with Scott Lynch also on board as orthopedic consultant.
Seidenberg will attend all practices and games. Lynch will be available on game days as well as commuting from Hershey to State College at least once a week for practice and more often if needed. Both will report to Sebastianelli.
Emergency situations will continue to be treated by three State College area surgeons, including Sebastianelli, at nearby Mount Nittany Medical Center.
Citing “trustee sources,” Sports Illustrated reported that Joyner said the changes were made for cost-saving reasons.
Penn State fired out criticism to the article — which appears in this week’s issue of the magazine — on Tuesday night, hours before it was available online to digital subscribers. The school contends that contrary to the article, the level of care has not diminished under the new structure.
“The article fundamentally distorts the facts,” the school said in a statement. “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 university’s entire medical program for intercollegiate athletics, including football.”
According to the article, Joyner, a former member of Penn State’s board of trustees who took over as acting athletic director in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, feuded with Sebastianelli in the past. Joyner, an orthopedic surgeon who previously worked as head physician for the U.S. Olympic Committee, reportedly had interest in the job that went to Sebastianelli in the early ’90s.
In February, shortly after Joyner was upgraded to full-time athletic director, Sebastianelli was removed as team physician.
“As athletic director for Penn State, my first priority is the welfare of our student-athletes,” Joyner said in a statement. “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.”
O’Brien suggested changes be made to the medical team after his first season, though he himself did not have the final call on Sebastianelli’s role with the team, nor who would replace him.
“I don’t hire and fire doctors,” O’Brien said.
On Wednesday, O’Brien himself talked to reporters and held an animated Q&A session of over 20 minutes in which he vigorously defended the program.
“To me, that article was a character assassination on Dave Joyner,” O’Brien said. “That’s what the article was. It wasn’t anything other than that.
“The (medical) model we have right now is the same model we had last year. That is the model that is appropriate for Penn State, and I believe in that model. … We’re fighting an uphill battle (with the NCAA sanctions). How can people think for one second that I would (compromise) the health of kids on our football team with 65 kids on scholarship.
According to Penn State spokesman Jeff Nelson, the school sent out requests to “peer institutions” in February looking to compare benchmarks for the level and quality of care offered to their respective football teams.
Nelson said via phone on Tuesday that he saw replies from schools and that Penn State “is considered to be equal or above the care provided by those schools.”
Penn State released the information gathered from that query on Wednesday, comparing the Lions’ model to that of Iowa, LSU, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Ohio State. The only discernible difference is that Penn State’s orthopedic surgeon will attend “at least one practice each week” while the other schools will have theirs available two or three times on weekdays. Northwestern’s is listed as “once or twice a week.”
The article also takes aim at Bream, who was hired as the football team’s head trainer last year. Citing unnamed sources, the article said Bream went beyond his scope in 2012 when he administered a prescription anti-inflammatory gel, operated an X-ray machine and lanced a boil on a player’s neck — procedures typically overseen by a medically certified physician. Bream does not have a medical degree.
Penn State responded by saying that an outside law firm investigated “questions and rumors” about Bream in January, but found “there was no credible or substantial evidence to support the allegations or rumors, and there was no wrongdoing or violation of professional standards.
“The report also concluded that none of the physicians who supervise the head trainer had made or documented any contemporaneous complaints to anyone or discussed with the trainer any concerns about overstepping bounds of care.”
There is also the case of former walk-on wide receiver Garrett Lerner, who told Sports Illustrated he suffered burns on his leg that later became infected as a result of a misused electrical stimulation machine. Lerner left the team this spring because of an unrelated medical issue.
Lerner, however, spoke out in support of Bream on his Twitter account Wednesday.
“All I’m going to say is that Tim Bream is a great trainer and great guy, and shouldn’t be thought of anything less,” he wrote.
During spring practice, veteran players spoke highly of Bream, who previously worked as the longtime and well-respected head trainer for the Chicago Bears. All-pro linebacker Brian Urlacher attended the 2012 Blue-White Game in order to visit Bream shortly after he left Chicago.
Center Ty Howle in particular lauded the Lions medical staff for helping him rehab and recover from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered last summer.
Other Penn State seniors echoed Lerner on Wednesday as Glenn Carson, Adam Gress, Eric Shrive and John Urschel, among others, also supported their trainer.
“We are truly blessed to have Tim Bream as part of our football family,” Urschel wrote. “He is the best at what he does and an essential part of this team.”