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Lawsuit: Ex-Penn State Football Doc Says James Franklin Interfered On Decision To Clear Players

Image: Joe Robbins (Getty)

In a lawsuit filed last week, the former orthopedic physician for Penn State’s football team said Nittany Lions coach James Franklin pressured him to clear players to return to game action before they were ready. The civil lawsuit was filed Friday in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. In the complaint, Dr. Scott Lynch said he lost his athletics job earlier this year after reporting Franklin’s meddling to several higher-ups at the university.

Lynch is requesting damages in excess of $50,000 under the state’s whistleblower protection law. Lynch is still employed by the university, but not involved with the athletics department.

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Lynch was named the team’s orthopedic physician in 2013 and then director of athletic medicine a year later. In his lawsuit, Lynch said he reported to higher-ups that “on multiple and repeated occasions, defendant James Franklin attempted to interfere with the plaintiff’s autonomous authority to determine medical management and return-to-play decisions related to student-athletes.” The lawsuit added that Franklin “created a culture and climate which, at a minimum, obstructed full compliance” with the independence team doctors are supposed to have.

Lynch made these reports to Dr. Kevin P. Black, currently the interim dean of the College of Medicine, to Penn State’s “athletic integrity officer” Robert Boland, to athletic director Sandy Barbour, and senior associate athletic director Charmelle Green, according to the complaint. On or around Jan. 24 of this year, per the lawsuit, Barbour and Green told Black that “the plaintiff be relieved from his assignment as the Intercollegiate Athletics Team Orthopedic Physician for the Penn State University Football Team and Director of Athletic Medicine for Penn State University.”

When Penn State axed Lynch in March, the university said it wanted an orthopedic surgeon based in State College and not Hershey. (Penn State’s medical college and center, officially the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, is based in the chocolate town.) Penn State Health’s press release at the time cited Lynch’s “growing responsibilities in Hershey” as a reason for the split.

The lawsuit does not list any specific instances of where Franklin allegedly interfered with Lynch’s decisions regarding athletes’ return to the field. As detailed in the lawsuit, an NCAA bylaw cites doctors’ “unchallengeable autonomous authority” in decisions regarding player participation in games.

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When contacted by Deadspin, various Penn State departments declined to comment or did not respond to the request. Penn State Health released a statement denying the allegations in the lawsuit, but defending the man who filed it:

In February 2019, Penn State Health administrators decided to change leadership for athletic medicine and the delivery of care for Intercollegiate Athletics. This transition was completed with the best interests of student-athletes in mind, given the increasing complexity and growing demands of sports medicine, as well as health care in general.

While we reject Dr. Lynch’s claims and will vigorously defend our program and its representatives, we remain grateful to him for his five years as director of athletic medicine for Intercollegiate Athletics and for his continued association with Penn State Health.

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Lynch, in the lawsuit, said the reasoning that Penn State wanted a State College-based physician for the team was a cover story. But the issue has come up before, in a 2013 exposé of Penn State’s medical staff by David Epstein in Sports Illustrated. The story, titled “What Still Ails Penn State, detailed a power struggle between then-Penn State AD David Joyner and then-former director of athletic medicine Wayne Sebastianelli. It also quoted one anonymous athletic department member critical of the team for letting then-coach Bill O’Brien make recommendations for changing medical personnel.

In the SI story, Sebastianelli criticized the football program for having its orthopedic surgeon based in Hershey, about two hours away from State College. “Scott Lynch is a wonderful doctor, but he’s based in Hershey and has a full-time practice there,” Pellegrini told SI.

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Penn State’s brass at the time vigorously defended the story, with O’Brien calling it a “character assassination of Dave Joyner.” Penn State released multiple statements, with the dean of the College of Medicine saying that “[a]ny suggestion that care is being compromised by the change in physician assignments is both unsubstantiated and incorrect.”

A few years later, apparently, Penn State changed its mind. Penn State’s new football team doctor, as named in March, is Sebastianelli.

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A copy of the complaint in full is below.

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