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Penn State found ‘friction’ between coach James Franklin, team doctor; could not determine violation

James Franklin
James Franklin

An internal review by Penn State in 2019 found evidence of “friction” between football coach James Franklin and a now-former team doctor, but it could not determine whether Franklin violated NCAA bylaws or Big Ten standards by interfering with medical decisions.

The 15-page document from Penn State’s office of ethics and compliance, dated June 3, 2019, was obtained by The Associated Press the day after a Pennsylvania jury awarded $5.25 million to Dr. Scott Lynch for winning a wrongful termination lawsuit against the hospital that employs him.

The report left undetermined if Franklin or anyone else at Penn State broke any rules. It acknowledged the athletic department’s desire to make a change came after periods friction between Lynch and senior leadership in the department. The report also recommend further inquiry.

Penn State said in a statement to The Associated Press it was extremely disappointed in the jury’s ruling last week. The school said its medical decisions regarding the care of athletes and whether they can compete adhere to NCAA rules and Big Ten standards.

“The changes made in the leadership for athletic medicine were made by the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center with a singular focus: the best interests of our student-athletes,” Penn State said. “In the plaintiff’s own legal filing, which Penn State reported to the Big Ten Conference in compliance with its obligations, the plaintiff acknowledged that the medical care of our student-athletes was never influenced by coaches or anyone at the university.”

The school did not detail what internal follow-up — as suggested by the report — was done.

MEDICAL DECISIONS

Coaching staffs are expected to leave medical decisions to team physicians and athletic trainers when it comes to player availability. Players are encouraged to advocate for their safety and not play through injuries, but just how much coaches influence putting a player back on the field is difficult to quantify.

Lynch told AP he believes coaches interfering with medical decisions is a problem across college sports.

“I think it’s a crisis,” Lynch said. “That nonsense has to stop.”

Lynch, a former national champion wrestler at Penn State, said he made recommendations to Penn State to better safeguard medical staff from pressure from coaches, but none were implemented.

“Protecting the health and welfare of our student-athletes is our single most important priority. Throughout James Franklin’s tenure, he has worked tirelessly to build a program focused on the well-being of student-athletes,” Penn State said.

The report, which was marked attorney/client privileged draft, was prompted by a complaint to Penn State’s athletic integrity officer made by Lynch after the doctor was removed from his position in March 2019. Lynch’s attorney tried to get the report entered as evidence in the trial, but it was denied.

The report said conflicts between Franklin and Lynch “may have been viewed as part of the natural friction between a physician and athletic interests.”

PENN STATE CASE

Franklin was originally named in Lynch’s lawsuit, but was dropped from the case along with Penn State athletics because of the statute of limitations. The case moved forward against Hershey Medical Center, where Lynch was based, and Dr. Kevin Black, the chairman of the department of orthopedics at the center.

Lynch’s attorneys argued the doctor was removed from his position as director of sports medicine at Penn State as retaliation for frequent conflicts with Franklin over the medical treatment of players. Lynch said the school attempted to hide Franklin’s involvement in his dismissal by saying he was replaced because he lived and practiced medicine in Hershey, which is about 100 miles southeast of the Penn State campus in State College.

Penn State officials said Lynch not living and working full-time in State College was inefficient and inconvenient for athletes and coaches. The report said Penn State’s preference for a team physician in residence full time in State College seemed to be based more on perception than conclusive evidence that it would improve coverage.

Defense attorneys in the trial said no medical treatments were ever altered under pressure from Franklin or other Penn State coaches and the internal report concluded the same.

The report also said there was “limited demonstrated evidence” that the removal of Lynch was made with a “retaliatory motive.” Lynch reported to Black in consultation with Penn State athletics, according to a contract between the school and hospital, the report said.

NCAA RULES

NCAA bylaws require schools to support “the unchallengeable autonomous authority of the primary athletics health care providers” when it comes to treatments and “return-to-play decisions.” Big Ten Conference standards bar coaches from “attempting to influence inappropriately any member of the medical or athletic training staff” regarding treatment.

Franklin has been the head coach at Penn State for 10 years, with an 88-39 record and five seasons of double-digit victories but just one Big Ten title (2015). The Nittany Lions were 10-3 last season.

Penn State gave Franklin a 10-year contract in 2021 with guarantees of more than $75 million. His buyout if he was to be fired by Penn State currently stands at more than $50 million, though a major NCAA violation could void the payment.

“My goal is not to target anybody in particular,” Lynch told AP. “My overarching goal is to try to get policies and procedures in place to stop this from happening. So what happens to him is not really my concern. My concern is way above that. Not just at Penn State. I’m hoping that this can be a catalyst so other people come forward now and we can effect change.”

SIX FOOTBALL INCIDENTS

Penn State investigators interviewed multiple people, including Lynch, Franklin and several Penn State athletes, who were asked about instances from 2016-19 when Lynch alleged his authority had been challenged. Six incidents involved football player injuries. Another involved a men’s soccer player. The athletes were not identified in the report.

Lynch and another doctor told investigators for the report that Franklin would say “words to the effect, ‘that I’ve been doing this for 30 years and you’ve only being doing this four years.’”

According to the report, after a football player was ruled out of a game in 2016 with an ankle injury, Lynch and another doctor were pressed by Franklin and a Penn State administrator to re-evaluate the decision. The player did not play. During the trial, former Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, testified about the decision and in support of Franklin.

Franklin told investigators this was his only specific recollection of friction between him and the doctors.

That same year, another player decided to have surgery instead of rehabilitating a shoulder injury in an effort to return to play faster, the report said. Lynch had given the player the option of surgery or rehab, but he claimed the player changed his mind after Franklin became involved.

According to the report, Franklin, then-athletic director Sandy Barbour and another administrator demanded a player with a “serious mental issue” be declared a medical non-counter — meaning he would not count against the team’s scholarship limit but could still have his tuition covered — before the athlete had received treatment. This allegedly occurred before the team’s postseason banquet and in the locker room after the final game of the 2017 season.

Barbour, who retired in 2022, declined to comment, citing the legal case.

“At Penn State, student-athletes compete only upon the independent approval of the medical team and physicians, who do not report to any coach or to Intercollegiate Athletics,” Penn State said. “These measures, which protect our student-athletes, were put in place long before Coach Franklin or Dr. Lynch were in their roles and worked as intended. Neither the five-year old internal compliance report nor the information shared during the trial suggested otherwise.”