Penn State Goes on the Offensive

The school's proactive response to a critical Sports Illustrated story marks a significant change of philosophy in dealing with controversy.

Whatever your opinion on the story in this week's Sports Illustrated that is highly critical of the Penn State football program's medical and training staff, one inescapable fact has arisen from the piece and the school's prompt reaction to it.

Penn State is no longer content to be a punching bag.

In a dramatic change of strategy from the way the university and athletic department handled the fallout of the Sandusky scandal -- and the Freeh Report and NCAA sanctions that followed it -- PSU was extremely proactive in attempting to shoot down the SI story. Statements refuting the findings of the story were floated to the media Tuesday night, before the full text was even available online.

By Wednesday morning, Jeff Nelson, Penn State's assistant athletic director for communications, was reaching out to individual beat writers with a long list of statements from key university personnel, and promising, “We'll have more later today.”

“To characterize the medical care Penn State provides our student-athletes as anything other than the highest quality is erroneous,” a general statement said. “Access to urgent and quality care for our athletes is no less than where it was at any point in the past 20 years. We provided Sports Illustrated with facts and data that demonstrate our commitment to our student athletes and how we compare to other peer institutions. Instead, the article sensationalizes in order to insinuate lower standards and largely ignores statements from the dean of the College of Medicine.”

In related news, football coach Bill O'Brien held a conference call with reporters to discuss the SI story. See his comments here.

Meanwhile, Penn State players took to Twitter to go on the offensive, fiercely defending trainer Tim Bream, who the SI piece accused of doing minor medical procedures on players even though he is not a doctor.

“Tim Bream is one of the best athletic trainers in college football and I feel safer than ever with him on our sideline,” tackle Eric Shrive said.

“Tim Bream is an excellent trainer and very important to all the football players,” running back Akeel Lynch said. “It's an honor and a privilege for us to have him.”

The story included quotes from only one person who claimed to have received substandard medical care while in the Penn State football program. Garrett Lerner, a walk-on in the spring of 2012 who later left the team, claimed a stim machine Bream was operating burned him. In an interesting twist, Lerner posted a tweet defending Bream Wednesday.

“All I'm going to say is is (sic) that Tim Bream is a great trainer, and great guy, and shouldn't be thought of as anything less,” Lerner wrote.

The criticisms of Bream were basically a throw-in at the end of the story. The piece's main bone of contention was the reorganization of the football program's medical staff earlier this year.

It suggested that when Dr. Scott Lynch replaced longtime team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, it somehow decreased the care available to Penn State football players. Sebastianelli lives and practices in the State College area, and attended every game and practice. It is not clear if Lynch, who is based at Penn State's Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center, will be at every practice.

The upshot of that, according to SI, is that a player who sustains a serious orthopedic injury might not receive immediate care. In the general statement, Penn State hammered that contention by pointing out that Sebastianelli is still a high-ranking member of the athletic department.

“Contrary to the reporter's assertions, Dr. Sebastianelli remains the doctor in charge of the university's entire medical program for intercollegiate athletics, including football,” the statement said. “Further, there has been no change in the support provided by State College-based Penn State orthopedic surgeons, including Dr. Sebastianelli.”

Dr. Harold Paz, the dean of Penn State's College of Medicine, said, “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.”

Another theme of the story was a supposed rivalry between current Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner, himself a former orthopedic surgeon, and Sebastianelli. The piece contends Joyner once coveted Sebastianelli's job as PSU director of athletic medicine and that ill will between the two men somehow played a role in Sebastianelli being removed from the football staff.

“It's terribly unfortunate some want to make baseless accusations,” Joyner said in a statement. “We refuse to engage in such a conversation.”

In reality, Penn State officials are not only engaging the conversation, but doing their damnedest to drive it.

And that change in philosophy is the biggest story to come out of what otherwise appears to be a non-story.

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