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What Still Ails Penn State
David Epstein
May 20, 2013
AT A TIME WHEN FOOTBALL SAFETY HAS NEVER BEEN MORE SCRUTINIZED, CHANGES IN THE UNIVERSITY'S ONCE-EXEMPLARY MEDICAL CARE BELIE PROMISES TO REIN IN THE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT AND OPERATE TRANSPARENTLY
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May 20, 2013

What Still Ails Penn State

AT A TIME WHEN FOOTBALL SAFETY HAS NEVER BEEN MORE SCRUTINIZED, CHANGES IN THE UNIVERSITY'S ONCE-EXEMPLARY MEDICAL CARE BELIE PROMISES TO REIN IN THE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT AND OPERATE TRANSPARENTLY

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Before 1992, Penn State employed an orthopedic surgeon who drove from Hershey, the site of Penn State's main medical campus, once or twice a week. The distance and limited hours meant that many injured players wound up in the offices and on the operating tables of State College private practitioners. Says Vincent Pellegrini, then chair of the department of orthopedics, "It was a B system on a good day, and a C on a bad day."

To improve student-athlete health care, in '92 the university started an unusually progressive sports medicine program in which doctors appointed to the college of medicine faculty would tend to varsity teams. A director of athletic medicine would head the program and report not to coaches or to the athletic director, but to the dean of the College of Medicine and to the chair of the department of orthopedics. That doctor would serve as orthopedic surgeon--head physician for the football team and, along with a primary care physician, attend practice daily. While he would work closely with the AD, "we felt it was very important to separate the athletics from the medical care," says Evarts, who was head of the national search committee convened to fill the position.

One orthopedic surgeon wanted the position badly: David Joyner, an All-America offensive lineman and wrestler at Penn State in the 1970s. Joyner served as the head physician to the U.S. team at the '92 Winter Olympics and that year also founded Joyner Sports Medicine Institute (JSI), which developed 19 physical therapy centers in eight states. "He approached me about the job personally," Evarts says of Joyner. "I told him it wasn't possible because he wasn't going to be a full-time academic" and maintain a private practice. (Through a Penn State spokesman, Joyner declined to speak directly to SI for this story.)

Instead, the search committee chose Sebastianelli, who had played football at Rochester and was an assistant professor there as well as a surgeon at two Rochester hospitals, to be the director of athletic medicine and orthopedic surgeon--head physician for the football team. According to Pellegrini, the decision to bring in an outsider did not sit well with Joyner. Once he was passed over, Pellegrini says, "Joyner had friends and connections in State College for whom he advocated. As objective as I can be, Joyner didn't have the credentials to be the team doctor full time. He hadn't done a sports medicine fellowship.... He was not excited about having a full-time faculty member in State College take care of the teams, but it was done to elevate the care for the athletes. Over the ensuing decade, Penn State had a model program for sports medicine."

According to current and former Penn State staff members, administrators, former players and longtime colleagues and friends of both Joyner and Sebastianelli, the decision began a rivalry of sorts between the two doctors. (Sebastianelli declined to comment about Joyner to SI. Through a university spokesman, Joyner said, "It's terribly unfortunate some want to make baseless accusations.... The vast majority of Penn Staters want the focus to be on our dedicated student-athletes, as it should be.") "Joyner kept trying to work behind the scenes to become the sports medicine doctor at Penn State," Evarts says. When he couldn't get the in-house job, adds Pellegrini, "he wanted more involvement with the teams as a private practitioner. And I have to tell you, now he's taken advantage of what had been a long-standing, very competitive relationship with Sebastianelli."

In the mid-1990s, when Joyner's sons, Andy and Matt, played football for the Nittany Lions, their former teammates and members of the team staff say their father would give them jsi T-shirts that they would hand out to other players. "His sons would tell guys on the team that [Joyner] could operate on them," recalls one former staff member. Multiple former players and staff members told SI that they recalled Joyner and Sebastianelli having heated words over whether Joyner was trying to lure football players away from the university medical system.

The following year Joyner sold JSI to NovaCare. In 2000 he became a Penn State trustee and joined a practice called the University Orthopedics Center, in which another trustee, former Nittany Lions linebacker Paul Suhey, was a partner. Soon thereafter, Joyner helped start a company that operated fitness centers. That business failed, and by 2005 Joyner was more than $1 million in debt to Community Banks, according to court records.

For help with his debt Joyner turned to his friend and former Penn State wrestling teammate Ira Lubert, a real estate investor who has served two stints as a university trustee. According to Dauphin County property records, Lubert purchased Joyner's house and allowed him to keep living there. Joyner ultimately satisfied his financial obligations by selling several other properties. According to interviews with trustees, Lubert is widely considered to be an exceptionally influential voice on the 32-member board. (Lubert did not respond to a message seeking comment.)

In November 2011, athletic director Tim Curley was placed on administrative leave after being charged with perjury related to the Sandusky case. (Curley has yet to go to trial.) He was succeeded by Mark Sherburne, who had been an associate AD for 11 years. Sherburne served for only 10 days before he was replaced as acting AD by Joyner, who then vacated his seat on the board.

Joyner's official appointment in January 2012, at a salary of $396,000, raised eyebrows. "You have to ask yourself how a member of the board of trustees was hired as AD without a national search," says Brandon Short, a former Penn State captain and Giants linebacker, a member of Penn State's Letterman's Club and now president of a business finance company based in Dubai. (Erickson has said there will be a national search for a permanent AD starting on June 30, 2014, the day Erickson says he will retire as president.)

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