By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Surprise! Nittany Lion fans are angry again at somebody who isn’t letting their little cult town of Happy Valley be so happy anymore.
This time their irrational ire is directed at Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein over his piece from last week, “What Still Ails Penn State,” which discusses the ouster of longtime director of athletic medicine and orthopedic surgeon-head physician for the football team Wayne Sebastianelli and the seemingly shady procedures undertaken by new athletic director David Joyner and other members of the school’s and team’s medical personnel. One of the questions the reader is left to beg is whether or not the program has its players’ health and safety at the forefront of football operations.
Since its release, the university has had to deal with a new batch of controversy—certainly not on par with what happened with Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno, but notable nonetheless. Head coach Bill O’Brien had a conference call Wednesday in which he emotionally responded to Epstein’s writing that he obviously feels is unfair.
“At the top of [my] responsibility list, at the top, is taking care of this program’s players,” O’Brien said. “The student-athletes in this football program are the No. 1 priority to me. Their health and safety is the No. 1 priority to me. It’s not near the top. It’s not around the top. It’s at the top.”
The linked piece from Awful Announcing suggests the possibility that O’Brien may have a legitimate beef (and much of what’s going on may be beyond his control), that “it seems as though much of what Penn State provides is pretty much on par with other programs,” and that Epstein’s piece doesn’t give the whole story (for example, Joyner, who in the article is painted as having at best a contentious relationship with Sebastianelli, had Sebastianelli perform his son’s surgery, which the article doesn’t mention). Current and former players have come to the program’s defense since the publication. Totally fair to discuss all that. But my issue lies not with whether this is part of a witch hunt but why the school that since the worst scandal in sports history promised transparency and more ethical behavior would even put itself in a position to have such a story written. And ditto why fans aren’t asking the same instead of shooting the messenger.
Before the latest issue of SI hit newsstands—let me repeat, before—idiots who hear “something not positive written or said about my favorite amateur athletic team” and respond by filling their palms with feces to chuck were out in full force. The old standby of superficial attacks were a given. I’m used to the “You attended Iowa (though your degree is from somewhere else but I’ll still call you an Iowa alum) and therefore are not credible for some illegitimate reason” retorts. At least it’s not the anti-Semitism Epstein had to endure almost immediately, because bigotry is always a good way to appear intelligent.
Then come the weirdos who touch themselves repeatedly after they get blocked by people better and smarter than them and see it as a validation of their pathologies. And the train that’s never late with PSU fans—the “look at the positive stuff, though, that negates everything else” delusionals. It’s as though Epstein was accidentally getting my email inbox.
Then the piece was actually released and the mantras shifted to “talking behind people’s backs doesn’t help the situation” and “why are you quoting anonymous sources?” With a fanbase ready crucify anyone who refuses to speak a negative word about the program instead of taking a deep breath and applying some rationality, and with a current administration obviously bent on surrounding itself with only agreeable people, how do you expect article sources to make themselves known?
Of course, why point fingers at all the important names that refused to talk to Epstein and could have easily cleared all of this stuff up if they actually are operating on the up and up. Joyner, Ira Lubert (a two-time PSU trustee who bailed Joyner out of debt), athletic trainer Tim Bream, and new team physician Peter Seidenberg all refused to speak with Epstein. Nah, get angry about the unnamed people that did speak instead.
So what about all that “now we’re going to be transparent” talk? Regardless if Penn State’s approach to team medicine is on par with most other schools or if the illegal procedures performed by trainers instead of doctors is usually considered not a big deal (Epstein’s story details accounts of former Chicago Bears trainer and now PSU athletic trainer Tim Bream—who holds no medical degree—giving players prescription drugs without doctor consent and using medical equipment he has no license to use), fans need to realize that their favorite football team gets no wiggle room for a while. That’s what happens when you’re involved in the worst sports story in American history.
Another key name that refused to speak with Epstein is Michael Mustokoff, an attorney Penn State hired to investigate Bream after allegations mentioned above started to surface. Oddly enough, Mustokoff’s bio page on his law firm’s website says he’s “currently representing Penn State University in criminal proceedings arising from the criminal prosecution of Gerald Sandusky and others.” It just so happens Mustokoff concluded Bream shouldn’t be in any trouble.
All of this could have easily been made a nonstory if someone like Joyner just came out and said from the start that these sports medicine personnel moves were made because of money, which Epstein cites trustee sources as saying was the case. Change can be good, and after the Sandusky scandal was certainly necessary in various aspects. But not when it comes to player health and safety if what was already in place was not only not broke, but pretty exceptional by most accounts.
Okay, though, the Sandusky thing left you guys seriously cash strapped. Everyone understands that. You chose to save money via team doctors and medical staff. Maybe not the noblest thing, but I guess understandable in difficult times like this. Moving on.
But no. Joyner and his people had to be weird and secretive about stuff at a time when that is the absolute last thing Penn State needs if it is to survive this reckoning.
Maybe PSU fans feel like their school is being picked on. Well, it is, and it deserves it, and fans will have to swallow that for several years. And when you have people like Joyner continuing to be clandestine about otherwise simple stuff like the team doctors, suspicion won’t go away.
In a column for Onward State in January of 2012, Kevin Horne wrote “It’s clear that the leaders at our University learned absolutely nothing from the detriments of staying silent two months ago. If Penn State can’t control a story about a head coaching search that they are conducting exclusively, what can it control?”
Over a year later, it’s the same story. One that deserves to be reported. And one that should make Penn State fans angry. Unfortunately, again, the anger is directed at the wrong people.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa and Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @Ten_Foot_Midget, but please don’t follow him in real life. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.