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

The shocking revelation this week about how the Nittany Lions treated a suicidal player is indicative of a broader epidemic in the sport, where team physicians routinely side with coaches over players’ medical needs.

Penn State head coach James Franklin
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Penn State head coach James Franklin during a game in 2017

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.