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Sports Illustrated Delves Into Penn State's Athletic Medical Staff

....and tries to make it into a "power in athletics" story, somehow.

Sports Illustrated has written its fourth feature-length story on Penn State since the Sandusky scandal started in November 2011, this time focusing on the removal of longtime athletic orthopedic surgeon Wayne Sebastianelli, who helped such athletes as Michael Robinson after his concussion sustained against Wisconsin in 2004, Adam Taliaferro after his near-paralysis on the field of Ohio Stadium in 2000 and countless others through his twenty years with the football program. His removal, along with the contentious relationship he held with Penn State athletic director David Joyner, forms the basis of a story that was headlined "Do Athletics Still Have Too Much Power At Penn State?"

You can find a preview of the story here. The full-length story is in the Sports Illustrated issue that hits newsstands this week.

Some major points that the story touches upon:

  • After Joe Paterno and the athletic department decided upon a new model of sports treatment, one that would be associated with the College of Medicine instead of private practices, Joyner, himself trained as an orthopedic surgeon, campaigned for the job before it went to Sebastianelli. The reason given to Joyner was that he would not come into academia and leave his practice for the job.
  • Joyner was made the permanent athletic director without any prior college administrative experience in January 2013. It should be noted that Joyner did serve with as chair of the USOC sports medicine committee. Within four days of "acting" being taken off of his title, Sebastianelli was asked to remove his things from the football office, as he would no longer be the team's surgeon, at the recommendation of head coach Bill O'Brien. He would still serve as head of medicine, and Peter Seidenberg and Scott Lynch would fill his duties as team physician and orthopedic surgeon, respectively. A surgeon would not be on-call or in State College at all times, though, as Sebastianelli was. Joyner said that the move was a cost-cutting measure, but that the same amount of care would be available to student-athletes.
  • Tim Bream, previously the athletic trainer for the Chicago Bears for 15 years and a Penn State alum, was brought on to be the trainer under the O'Brien regime. Sources told SI that he would administer drugs and perform procedures that he was not allowed to do without a medical license. He was investigated and found clear of any wrong-doing by Michael Mustokoff of the law firm Duane Morris LLC. He also told physicians not to talk to parents of student-athletes being cared for and that they didn't need to show up to most events, such as morning conditioning.

Almost everyone at Penn State released a statement refuting the report:

Dr. Harold Paz, senior vice president for Health Affairs, Chief Executive Officer, Penn State Hershey Medical Center and dean of the College of Medicine:

As a former collegiate athlete and a fellowship-trained sports medicine physician, Dr. Scott Lynch has a tremendous understanding of the health care needs of Penn State's football team and a deep personal commitment to the well-being of its players. We have great confidence in his ability to serve as orthopedic consultant to the team. He will be in attendance at every Penn State football game and will meet weekly throughout the year with other members of the sports medicine team and injured players in State College to oversee the evaluation, treatment and recovery of our student athletes.

In the event of an emergent medical need, our focus will be on providing the best possible care for the athlete. We have three Penn State Hershey-employed orthopedic surgeons based in State College, including Dr. Sebastianelli, that are credentialed to perform surgery at Mount Nittany Medical Center, fellowship-trained in sports medicine and can assist with care of the athlete. One of these surgeons is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure surgical coverage in the event of such an emergency. In rare instances of extremely complex problems that require Level I trauma care, an athlete may be transported to Penn State Hershey Medical Center. In addition, the football team physicians will continue to report directly to Dr. Sebastianelli. This same practice of emergency coverage in support of Penn State student-athletes has been in place for many years and will continue.

Bill O'Brien, Head Football Coach:

When I was hired as the Head Football Coach at Penn State, I was asked to observe areas of the football program and then make recommendations. After observing our medical organization in the football program for a full year, I recommended that it would be in the best interests of our program, and most importantly our student-athletes, to make a change in the team physicians. Dr. Lynch and Dr. Seidenberg were identified as excellent doctors who could serve in this role. Dr. Seidenberg will attend our practices and Dr. Lynch will be here on game day. From a coverage standpoint, we have exactly the same level of medical care as we had previously. The same surgeons as last year are available to players who would need that level of attention. Nothing about our level or quality of athlete care has changed. These young men mean a great deal to me and our staff. They give their all to Penn State. I will always recommend what I feel is best for our student-athletes in every area of the football program.

Below are credentials for Drs. Lynch and Seidenberg:

Dr. Seidenberg, who serves as team physician, is also associate professor of orthopedics and a primary care sports medicine physician for Penn State Hershey's orthopedic practice in State College. Dr. Lynch is an associate professor of orthopedics and director of orthopedic sports medicine at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, and he serves as the football program's orthopedic consultant.

Dr. David Joyner, Director of Athletics:

Care of our student-athletes is a top priority for Penn State, as it always has been. The present medical care model is very consistent with peer institutions in the Big Ten and elsewhere. The present system offers appropriate and exceptional medical care for our student-athletes.

It's terribly unfortunate some want to make baseless accusations. We refuse to engage in a such a conversation. The vast majority of Penn Staters want the focus to be on our dedicated student-athletes, as it should be.

Penn State Athletics:

Questions and rumors about the head athletic trainer were investigated by an outside law firm in January. The trainer and supervisory physicians were interviewed. The legal team's report concluded there was no credible or substantial evidence to support the allegations or rumors, and there was no wrongdoing or violation of any 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. Mr. Bream is a respected and dedicated professional who provides care to hundreds of our student-athletes.

With regards to Tim Bream, current and former players tweeted their support for the head trainer, including former walk-on Garrett Lerner who was the focus of one of Bream's mishaps with a stim machine.

In the end, this story is more of a hit piece, deserved or not, on Dave Joyner than it is about athletics and power at Penn State. The healthcare of student-athletes has always been considered within an athletic department at every school. Even the Sebastianelli model was done within the plan of the Penn State athletic department. Replacing doctors, albeit a very talented one, is not a power play by an athletic department.

This is a story that will blow over in a month's time or less, much like the Iowa rhabdo incident did, and that was without a feature-length story in America's largest sports magazine. Is it truly a story at all? Yes, but not in the way that SI framed it. In a world where concussions and other traumatic injuries are at the forefront of sports, extra care should be provided at every institution. Let's hope that Penn State and all other college and professional teams alike make sure to promote high standards in the field of health for many years to come.

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