Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien lashed out at a Sports Illustrated story that is critical of the program's medical and training staff Wednesday afternoon.
In a 20-minute conference call with beat writers, O'Brien called the story, “irresponsible, reckless and wrong,” adding that he believed it was a “character assassination” of PSU athletic director Dave Joyner.
”When we feel like there are things out there that just aren't accurate, that are way off base, I believe as a university we need to argue that and fight that and not take it lying down,” he added.
At the heart of the criticism raised by the SI piece was the athletic department's January decision to replace longtime football orthopedic surgeon Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli. Sebastianelli, who lives and practices in State College, attended every PSU practice and game. His replacement, Dr. Scott Lynch, works at Penn State's Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center and it is not clear if he will be available for every practice.
The story suggested players might not receive the same level of care as in the past.
Penn State got out in front of the Wednesday morning online release of the SI story by issuing a series of statements Tuesday night, including one from the school's dean of medicine, Dr. Harold Paz. Paz noted that Sebastianelli remains as the school's director of athletic medicine and is one of three State College orthopedic surgeons who are available to treat Penn State athletes. He added that one of the three is on call 24 hours a day.
Wednesday afternoon, Penn State issued a release comparing its in-season football medical coverage to seven other major college programs.
“It's the same if not better than any place I've been,” said O'Brien, who previously served as an assistant coach with four different college programs and with the NFL's New England Patriots. “The model we have right now is the same model we had last year.”
O'Brien called the well being of the players his top priority.
“It's not near the top, it's not around the top,” he said. “It's at the top.”
O'Brien said he was in frequent contact with SI about the story Sunday and that Penn State sent the magazine information that did not appear in the magazine. He was surprised very little he or Paz had to say made it into the story.
“You guys that know me, that have been around me, you know I'm not sitting in my office trying to hide,” he said.
O'Brien added that from a practical standpoint, it is imperative for Penn State to keep its players as healthy as possible. Due to NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, PSU must be down to 65 scholarships (from the standard 85) by the start of the 2014 season. The Lions are nearly at that mark already, and actually cut down on full scrimmages in spring practice to avoid injuries.
“You think for one second I would jeopardize the health and safety of this football team with 65 kids on scholarship?” he asked a reporter. “That's preposterous.”
The SI story suggested Joyner, himself a former orthopedic surgeon, holds a grudge against Sebastianelli because at one point they both applied for the director of athletic medicine job at Penn State and Sebastianelli landed the position.
In a prepared statement, Joyner said: ”As athletic director for Penn State my first priority is the welfare of our student-athletes. 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 said he recommended the change in team orthopedic surgeons but declined to give specifics on why other than to say his goal for the entire program is, “to assemble the right team that believes in the same thing.”
Outspoken Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano added gas to the fire Wednesday in an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “The fear is in that becoming more like the NFL, there might be more of a rush to get the student back on the field,” he said. “Is that a risk we're willing to take?”
O'Brien's response: “I don't understand how someone can make a quote that they know nothing about and the quote is not true. We have a model that is used by many, many Division I schools across the country. It is the model we've used here. So I don't know how anyone not involved with the program can make a quote like that.”
Be sure to get in on the discussion about the SI story, recruiting and everything else in the world of Penn State football on our TAP forum.