EDITORIAL: Penn State must be transparent during whistleblower lawsuit by ex-team doctor
Last week, the Penn State football program found itself in the national spotlight.
Unfortunately for local Nittany Lions’ fans, it had nothing to do with the team’s play on the field during a 79-7 season-opening pounding of Idaho.
Instead, the school was again in the news for an off-the-field controversy.
A former football team doctor filed a whistleblower lawsuit against PSU, head coach James Franklin and others because he had “significant concern for the safety of the college athlete.”
Dr. Scott Lynch alleged in the lawsuit that Franklin attempted to interfere with the doctor’s decisions regarding when injured players could return to the field. Lynch also alleges that he was removed from his position as the team doctor after bringing concerns to university officials, including athletic director Sandy Barbour.
Lynch’s suit notes several recommendations he made during a 2019 exit interview with officials, including limiting contact between coaches and doctors and preventing coaches from discussing injuries with players either “positively or negatively.”
In an email exhibit attached to the suit, Lynch wrote, “I don’t feel that there are good protections in place to stop the attempts by the coaches and staff, particularly Coach Franklin, to interfere with medical decisions.”
Serious charges: Those are some very serious charges, especially in this era, when football is under intense scrutiny from many corners about the debilitating long-term health effects the sport can have on its participants. Concussions are of particular concern.
It is now normal operating procedure that team doctors have the final say on when an injured player can return to the playing field. That is definitely the way things should operate. The coaches are competitive by nature and they may sometimes look at the win-loss column, rather than the players’ long-term best interests, when evaluating when an injured player can return.
The team doctors, by contrast, should only have the players’ medical interests at heart when making those kinds of decisions.
If Franklin did interfere in the team doctor’s decisions, he should be disciplined severely, possibly even fired.
Franklin is not the only defendant in the suit. Also named are Penn State, Penn State Health, Barbour and Kevin Black, chairman of orthopedics and rehabilitation at Hershey Medical Center. Lynch seeks more than $50,000 in damages.
Nothing has been proven: Of course, it’s critical to note that, at this point, nothing has been proven. There should not be a rush to judgment.
Franklin, for his part, said that he will “vigorously defend” himself and the program against the allegations.
It should also be noted that a number of Franklin’s former players, including recent stars such as Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, came to Franklin’s defense. They praised how Franklin handled their situations when they were injured. Some parents of former PSU players also lauded Franklin’s handling of injuries.
So, at this point, it’s unclear who is telling the truth. Lynch could prove to be simply a disgruntled former employee who was dismissed for good cause.
Last thing that Penn State needed: Still, there’s little debate that this kind of controversy is the last thing that Penn State and its football program needed.
After all, the school is still trying to rebuild a once-stellar reputation that was severely tarnished by the Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and its aftermath.
There is no doubt that significant strides have been made at Penn State since details of the sordid Sandusky situation first emerged in 2011.
Another scandal, however, could damage the school and the football program beyond repair. That is exactly what could happen — if Lynch’s allegations prove to be true.
Given that history, the university and Franklin should employ complete transparency and truthfulness during the legal proceedings in the weeks, months and possibly even years to come. The school simply can’t afford to be seen as hiding anything.
That didn’t work during the Sandusky scandal, and it certainly won’t work now.