O'Brien calls SI report 'irresponsible' and 'wrong'
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien fired back Wednesday at a Sports Illustrated special report that questions whether changes on the school's athletic medical staff could compromise the safety of his players.
“Their health and safety is the No. 1 priority for me. It's not near the top, it's not around the top, it's at the top,” O'Brien said during a conference call. “For anyone to suggest or outright accuse that anyone within Penn State's athletic program would do otherwise is irresponsible, reckless and wrong.”
Penn State tried to get in front of the story that focuses on the reorganization of the sports medicine staff — and the motives behind it — before Sports Illustrated hit newsstands on Wednesday. A Penn State spokesman issued statements late Tuesday night from O'Brien, athletic director Dave Joyner and Dr. Harold Paz, the CEO of Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
The university issued additional statements Wednesday, including one that said, “The article fundamentally distorts the facts. There's been no change in model of medical care for our student-athletes.”
During a contentious conference call with reporters, O'Brien offered the strongest rebuttal to the SI article, which also claims head trainer Tim Bream overstepped his medical authority. The second-year coach made clear that he takes personally assertions that changes made in January may have diminished the quality of Penn State's medical care for the football players.
Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, an orthopedic surgeon who had been the team's primary doctor since 1992, now oversees Penn State's athletic medical program but does not work with the football team on a daily basis. Dr. Peter Seidberg and Dr. Scott Lynch replaced Sebastianelli as the team's head physician and orthopedic surgeon, respectively, in a change that the school only announced after it had been reported.
O'Brien said he recommended the changes to his bosses after observing the program for a year. The Sports Illustrated story asserts that Joyner wanted the job that Sebastianelli got in 1992, and that is why he pushed for the latter to get reassigned.
“What that article was to me was a character assassination of Dave Joyner, and it wasn't anything other than that,” O'Brien said. “The care for our players medically is superb. I spent much time on Sunday on the phone with Sports Illustrated. I didn't have any quotes in the story.”
The story quoted Adam Taliaferro, who suffered a severe spinal injury in 2000 and credits the care he received from Sebastianelli for his overcoming overwhelming odds to walk again.
Taliaferro told SI that Sebastianelli is family and that “I'm trying to figure out what is going on.”
But Taliaferro said Wednesday that he “didn't know the context” when he talked to SI back in January. Taliaferro, a member of Penn State's Board of Trustees, said he didn't know about changes in the sports medicine department when SI first asked him about Sebastianelli and that he thought the magazine was doing a feature story on Sebastianelli.
Another member of the board said the SI story raised some concerns with him.
“I believe Bill O'Brien is a fine football coach,” said Anthony Lubrano, the most outspoken member of the board. “But I also think the health care of our athletes should not solely be the responsibility of the football coach.”
Penn State issued a release comparing its in-season medical coverage with programs from across the country, including LSU, Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska. O'Brien said the coverage has not fundamentally changed and that it is as good as anywhere he has ever been.
O'Brien said the NCAA sanctions, which limit the amount of players Penn State is allowed to have on scholarship, is another reason why player safety is his top priority.
“You think for one second I would jeopardize the health and safety of this football team with 65 kids on scholarship?” O'Brien said. “That's preposterous.”