Penn State’s Horrifying Treatment of Football Players Is the Norm

After a Penn State football player attempted to kill himself, and while he was receiving consequent psychiatric
care, head coach James Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour  allegedly attempted  to get the player medically
disqualified from the team—thus revoking his college scholarship—to open up
another scholarship they could use to recruit another player for the next
season.

So testified Dr. Pete Seidenberg, the team’s former
primary care physician, on Tuesday in the civil trial of a lawsuit brought by
Dr. Scott Lynch, who was Penn State’s director of athletic medicine until he
was fired—wrongfully, he alleges—in 2019.

Based on interviews we conducted with former football players
in the Power 5 conferences for a recent scholarly article and our forthcoming book,  The End of College Football: On the Human Cost of an
All-American Game , the experience of that unnamed Penn State player is
more the rule than the exception when it comes to the treatment and care of these
athletes. In fact, conflict of interest in medical care is one of the defining
characteristics of the exploitation that suffuses the sport.

“A lot of time the medical staff is on the coach’s side,” one
former player told us, because “something goes down the drain or
something goes wrong and the university is gonna start cleaning house.… The
coaching staff and the medical staff definitely work hand to hand.”

Seidenberg, in his testimony
at the trial, said of Franklin about another injured player, “Coach was trying
to get us to release the athlete for return to play. We were being pressured to
release the athlete.… Coach was trying to influence medical decisions.”

In fact, according to Seidenberg, Franklin raised the idea with team
physicians of borrowing a locker room sign (which was introduced in court) used
at the University of Michigan that says, “The unmotivated player, the
out-of-shape player, the hurt player, and the bad player all look the same.” As
Seidenberg explained, “This encourages hurt players to hide their injuries and
not report them to the medical team.”

The trial also revealed that in Penn State’s contract with
equipment maker Nike, there is a clause that bans “reducing or restricting logo
placement,” which an attorney referred to as a “no spatting” clause because it
inhibits how medical officials can tape the ankles of injured players.

As we’ve found, these are precisely the sort of factors that
influence a medical staff, even if well-intentioned, to bow to the will of
coaches.

One player explained to us that athletic trainers themselves
are in an “unfair” situation: “Because, he’s got a wife and two kids and he
knows the reality. And it’s his job to get you out there.… So, it’s not like
these people are evil. They’re caught in the bind themselves. I think it’s easy
to castigate them but it’s a structural problem.” He added, “It’s a pressure
cooker. So, it isn’t as though there’s instances where you are pressured to
play through pain—it’s a constant, it’s an expectation.”

Penn State is not the only school that has made news lately
on this issue. At the University of Washington, former running back Emeka Megwa
was reportedly told, “Drop your [expletive] nuts and get
on the [expletive] line, that’s some pussy ass shit,” in 2022 by a team
official when he tried to follow a doctor’s instructions to rest and
rehabilitate a serious tear in his ACL.

According to reports, a team physician told Megwa that his knee would
require two to three months more of rehab before he could play, but Megwa was ordered
by team officials to resume practice. During this period, he repeatedly told
the team that he was in pain, but was simply given painkillers. Eventually, he
succumbed to a second ACL tear and was instructed by a Washington coach to
enter the transfer portal.

Megwa’s case, like Penn State’s and the experiences of the
players we spoke to, testifies to the disposable way in which campus athletic
workers are treated by a system designed to extract performance and value from
their bodies, regardless of the long-term costs. 

All too often, painkillers are used instead of care,
frequently with disastrous consequences. “I was given Tramadol before games,”
one player told us, referring to the opioid. “I don’t know if I ever had a
prescription for it. It was just given to me, by a single pill, by hand. When
you get that, you think it’s vitamin C or something. You don’t realize that’s
something that’s addictive.”

Another told us, “I know at [a Big 10 school], actually,
they had a heroin problem, because guys were taking so much pain medicine that
they started doing heroin.… And I had a teammate two years younger than me at
[redacted school], and none of this is public knowledge, he was addicted to
pain pills and got into heroin at [redacted school]. And was on, during a
game.”

Power 5 schools hold themselves up as institutions of
pedagogy and development. The University of Washington, as part of its mission, says that it lets students
“promote their capacity to make humane and informed decisions”—a rather dubious
claim given the treatment of Megwa. Likewise, Penn
State claims, “We act with integrity and honesty in accordance with the
highest academic, professional, and ethical standards,” and “are accountable
for our decisions, actions, and their consequences.”  

Perhaps it’s time we hold them to that. 

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