Great journalism opens doors that would have otherwise remained shut. It takes us down paths we never would have chosen ourselves. Sometimes what we find in the rooms behind those doors or at the end of those paths enthralls us; sometimes it enrages us. But the best stories are always the ones that truly teach us something.
Epstein's story describes a rift between Joyner (above) and Sebastianelli but not what it means for Penn State..
David Epstein's investigative piece in Sports Illustrated on the changes in Penn State's athletic department, subtly entitled "What Still Ails Penn State," endeavors to open several doors, and succeeds in a few instances.
But the story finds little more in the rooms behind those than a perceived vendetta, a brief examination of the credentials of the university's athletic director and some questions -- most left unanswered -- about the roles trainers should play in college sports.
Epstein opens the story with Michael Robinson's re-telling of Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli's staunch refusal to let him back on the field before he was ready following the concussion the former Penn State quarterback suffered in 2004. The anecdote, and Robinson's testimony, are meant to portray Sebastianelli, the long-time football team physician, as a responsible expert in his field who would never put anything before players' safety.
Anyone who has spent time around the Penn State program in recent years already knows that to be true. But it's the kind of anecdote that a writer might use as contrast for a story about a doctor who doesn't put players' safety first -- the physicians who replaced Sebastianelli, perhaps. At no point in the story, though, does Epstein provide any examples of or even allusions to Peter Seidenberg and Scott Lynch -- the two physicians who effectively now hold Sebastianelli's former responsibilities with the team -- doing anything to disregard player safety. Epstein shows us the "before" but doesn't really touch on the "after." Which is difficult, considering the Nittany Lions won't play their first game without Sebastianelli for more than three more months.
Instead, the story discusses "an abrupt shift in the school's health-care program for football," and harps on the fact that Lynch, now the team's orthopedic surgeon, lives and works in Hershey, about 100 miles away from the Lasch Building, implying or directly stating that it would be difficult for him to personally attend more than a handful of the team's practices. Epstein quotes Bill O'Brien as saying he believes Lynch will be at practice "just about every day in the fall" which conflicts with a schedule SI obtained from Penn State that indicates Lynch "will be expected to be present only on Wednesdays."
The issue is one of a couple of interesting points raised by the story: Should a team that plays the most violent collegiate sport have a surgeon on hand (or simply in town) at every practice, or is it enough to have a head physician and a staff of trainers in the building?
Which brings us to the other major issue the story addresses -- the role Tim Bream has played since he replaced long-time trainer George Salvaterra shortly after O'Brien's hire. Unnamed sources told SI that Bream gave players drugs without prescriptions or a physician's approval and saw him engaging in procedures -- such as lancing a boil -- requiring specific certification or medical licenses.
The story also reports that Penn State asked an attorney to investigate these allegations of Bream and, according to a statement delivered by Joyner to SI, the legal team's report "concluded that there was no credible or substantial evidence to support the allegations or rumors."
Epstein's report then tells of the severe burns walk-on receiver Garrett Lerner suffered while being treated by Bream with an electrical stimulation machine in February (after the report came out Wednesday, Lerner, who is no longer on the team, tweeted "All I'm going to say is is that Tim Bream is a great trainer, and great guy, and shouldn't be thought of as anything less").
Again, the question of how many decisions around a collegiate athletics team should be made by trainers versus physicians is a valid one. But Epstein's story, instead of exploring that angle further, meanders, too often settling on testimony of sources, both named (former linebacker Brandon Short) and unnamed about both how Joyner found himself at the head of the athletic department -- an interesting question, also possibly for another story -- and especially what he terms as a "contentious history" with Sebastianelli.
Any of those stories, on their own, could be interesting paths to walk down. But Epstein takes us a few steps down each, or opens the door a crack, then whisks us away to the next subtopic. And each of these small stories, on their own, are stories that would be unlikely to fill the headlines of most local newspapers, let alone of the nation's most prominent sports magazine.
As part of a larger narrative, though -- this broad, black-and-white idea that Penn State "still doesn't get it," that a university driven blind by money and football glory not only allowed a predator to prey in its midst for decades but, even after he was incarcerated, still puts disproportionate emphasis on football -- this story, or collection of stories, has legs. It stirred up a Penn State fan base that was finally starting to feel good again. It will undoubtedly turn some heads -- though not nearly as many -- around the country. People who have never set foot in State College will shake their heads and cluck their tongues, just as they did when Penn State fans and alumni decried the Freeh Report and the sanctions.
And that is the true legacy of the Sandusky nightmare -- the way it has changed the context of everything Penn State does and will do for years to come. Any move the athletic department makes, any coach or administrator or physician or trainer it hires, will be examined with a fine-toothed comb. The campus and, especially, the Lasch Building, will be viewed through a different prism than any other campus or football complex which, when you consider the monstrosities Sandusky was able to commit, is probably not a bad thing.
The amped-up spotlight isn't going away, and it will eventually shine on parts of the program and the university that need to be fixed. Unfortunately, it will also shine on, and reveal, the petty bickering and politics that aren't major issues but are a part of most campuses and athletic programs, particularly the politics that, despite O'Brien's continued pleas for a "unified Penn State," continue to rage on behind the scenes between the old regime and the new one. Epstein's story, though ambitious in its reach, probably turned up more of the latter than the former.
If it truly taught us anything, it's that it won't be the last of its kind.
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