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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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IN A SEPTEMBER 2004 game at Wisconsin, Penn State junior quarterback Michael Robinson faked an option left and shuffled back a few steps to gaze downfield. With no receivers open, he pulled the ball down and spun—his chin connecting with the crown of defensive end Erasmus James's helmet. Then: darkness.

The crowd of 82,179 at Camp Randall Stadium went silent. Robinson had barely regained consciousness a couple of minutes later when he began to panic: "I gotta get a real job now!" he cried out. Then something calmed him. "I just remember Sebas's face," Robinson says, using the players' nickname (pronounced SEE-bass) for Wayne Sebastianelli, the longtime director of athletic medicine and orthopedic surgeon--head physician for the football team. "When you're down on the field in front of so many people, you just want to see a familiar face."

Sebastianelli knew Robinson well, having attended almost every Nittany Lions practice since 1992. That was the year the university created a position for a full-time orthopedic surgeon at the urging of coach Joe Paterno, and Sebastianelli had become part of the football family. Sebastianelli was always on call; Robinson even remembers seeing him working with Paterno's wife, Sue, to rehab her hip at 4:30 a.m.

"Sebas just spoke with a respect that made you trust him," Robinson says. "He was there all the time and he knew how to talk to athletes." That Saturday in Madison, Robinson was strapped to a body board and taken away in an ambulance. He stayed overnight at the University of Wisconsin Hospital before returning to State College. Within a few days he felt well enough to take the neurocognitive ImPACT test to assess whether his brain had returned to normal functioning. Surprisingly, Robinson scored better than his baseline on several measures.

But based on his expertise—for a decade, Sebastianelli had been a co-author on studies of concussion recovery—he told Robinson that he could not play the next game, against Minnesota, or the one after that, against Purdue. Sebastianelli ordered that the quarterback's helmet be taken out of his locker. Robinson pleaded. He argued. He asked why he had even taken the ImPACT test if passing it didn't allow him to play. When none of that worked, the 6'2", 225-pound Robinson stood up, angrily, in Sebastianelli's office in the football building.

Recalls Robinson, "Sebas said, 'You want to throw down? Let's do it. You might beat me up, but you're not going back on the field.... Maybe at another university, or maybe when you get to the league, but I can't let you go out there.' " Such a firm stance was not unusual. According to former team staff members, Sebastianelli would respond to coaches who insisted that an injured player was ready to return with: "And where did you get your medical degree?"

Now a fullback for the Seahawks, Robinson is grateful Sebastianelli held his ground, and he has become one of the legion of former Nittany Lions in the NFL who continue to call Sebastianelli for medical advice. But recently Robinson joined a more problematic roster: former players and members of the Penn State football family dismayed that Sebastianelli was relieved of his duties as orthopedic surgeon--head physician as part of an abrupt shift in the school's health-care program for football—a shift that will provide less on-site coverage. Instead of having an orthopedic surgeon who attends every practice, the university now employs a primary care physician in State College and an orthopedic consultant who commutes about two hours each way from Hershey, Pa., at least once a week.

At a time when health and safety issues have rattled football to its core, some members of the Penn State community can't fathom why one of the country's highest-profile and most-scrutinized programs would do anything that might lessen athletic health care. "It was one of the things that sold you about Penn State," says the parent of a player who asked not to be identified. "That whole medical coverage at every practice. How is this change [made] with our kids in mind?"

Beyond that, many are troubled by the circumstances surrounding the change, which they attribute to David Joyner, the controversial new athletic director. A member of the board of trustees at the time of his appointment, Joyner had no experience in college athletic administration and has a contentious history with Sebastianelli. In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal—the longtime assistant football coach was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse, and the school was fined $60 million by the NCAA and placed on five years' probation—Penn State president Rodney Erickson acknowledged that "the nation's eyes are upon us," vowing to "ensure proper governance" of athletics and making a "commitment to transparency." The school even set up a website, Toward a More Open University.

Erickson's appointing a university trustee as AD and the ouster of Sebastianelli—which was done summarily, without reference to performance issues and based on the recommendation of Bill O'Brien, who had just finished his first year as football coach—appear squarely at odds with those aims. "Here we are trying to change our image and approach administrative changes with clarity and openness," says Mac Evarts, former dean of Penn State's College of Medicine and a current professor of orthopedics at the university, "and we have another example of a decision being driven by athletics."

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