Every orthopedist worth his insurance payments knows that the best way to get his name in the papers and build a bustling medical practice is to land a job tending to the torn ligaments and broken bones of players on a professional sports team. The publicity is as priceless as the company you keep. Plus, you get great seats.
But now one of these doctors has come up with a new and nifty way of capitalizing on such a relationship, and it has many of his peers crying foul.
Back in March, Dr. Norman Scott, the Knicks’ team physician, angered the team’s executives when he seemed to trade on his authority over the fate of injured star Patrick Ewing to tout an organization he’d helped start a year before, a limited liability company called the Association of Professional Team Physicians, or P.T.P. To get a little press for P.T.P., Dr. Scott, who had been declared off-limits to the media on all matters pertaining to Mr. Ewing, gave an exclusive interview to The New York Times in which he discussed Mr. Ewing’s status in some detail. What angered the Knicks, according to media sources familiar with the team, was Dr. Scott’s thinly veiled use of Mr. Ewing as bait.
Although they deny it, Dr. Scott and the numerous other pro team doctors involved in the venture seem to be trading on their relationships with their teams to build a brand name for themselves. And the brand is devoted, in large part, to generating profits. For that reason, many doctors in the sports medicine establishment are wary of P.T.P. and skeptical of its intentions.
If the incident was an example of the aggressive way P.T.P. plans to market itself, David Checketts, chief executive of Madison Square Garden and overlord of the Knicks, didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he told The Observer that it was no big deal. “I was unaware of any tension over that,” he said. Mr. Checketts, incidentally, is the co-founder of P.T.P. and is a member of its four-man board of directors.
At a time when medicine is changing and doctors are becoming more business-savvy, P.T.P. has found a way of converting expertise in matters athletic into a commodity fit for the marketplace. Dr. Scott has enlisted more than 70 doctors from teams in the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the Women’s National Basketball Association to join his venture. The organization will endorse and market “sportcare” products and distribute information about sports-related injuries not only to its own members but to consumers as well. P.T.P. also plans to accredit sports clinics and develop a product stamp of approval, à la Good Housekeeping .
Gain From Pain
In some ways, it is a fresh idea: An organization of team doctors, many of them actual investors in the company, is creating a vehicle to pass along medical and training advice to weekend warriors and the manufacturers who serve them. But the idea takes a turn for the controversial when it manifests itself as a for-profit commercial venture, and many team doctors in New York are wrinkling their noses at the scent of commercial gain. In their view, it’s one thing for Michael Jordan to take money to endorse a line of sneakers; it’s another for doctors to recommend a product because they are in business with its manufacturer.
“You just don’t do that,” said one Manhattan orthopedic surgeon who has worked with professional athletes. “You don’t use your name, associated with a team, to sell products.”
For that reason, many prominent team doctors in New York, among them some of the top names in the sports medicine business, have declined Dr. Scott’s invitation to join P.T.P. “Norm definitely wants me to join this thing,” said one local team physician. “They’re eager to get New Yorkers aboard because this is the media and marketing capital.”
Dr. Scott, however, downplayed the significance of New York. “Everyone is welcome to join,” he said. “We want everyone who shares the same vision.”
Among the New York doctors who apparently don’t share it are Bart Nisonson of the Rangers, who declined to comment to The Observer ; David Altchek of the Mets, who described the idea as “kind of knuckleheady”; Stuart Hershon of the Yankees, who declined comment; and Russell Warren of the Giants, who would not return calls seeking comment.
Dr. Warren’s absence from P.T.P.’s ranks didn’t pass without notice. “Russ came out very strongly against this,” said one physician who works with an N.F.L. team. “The fact that Russ isn’t involved speaks volumes,” said another. Dr. Warren is said to dislike Dr. Scott, but his objection to P.T.P. may not be solely personal. Some of Dr. Warren’s colleagues maintain that he is uncomfortable with the idea of doctors endorsing products. In fact, the entire N.F.L. Physicians Society, of which Dr. Warren is a longstanding member, has begged off. “We have determined that it is not in our interest to get involved in this organization,” said Robert Heidt Jr., the Cincinnati Bengals doctor who is president of the society. “Our ideals are totally opposite. We’re more of a purist medicine group geared toward education and research, as opposed to making money for ourselves.”
Information, for a Price
The main players in P.T.P., for their part, go to great lengths to downplay the profit angle and portray their association as one committed to just those very principles: education and research. Their asset, they say, is information, and they want weekend athletes to have it. It is set up as a business, they say, in order to make it more efficient and more in line with the changing face of medicine.
“You can go pro and con about this,” Dr. Scott said. “If we had just a not-for-profit, we’d never be off the ground right now. The other organizations we all belong to-and they’re excellent organizations-their mandate is just to educate physicians. Our mandate is broader. Ideas have sprung out of that: educating the media, educating companies who are begging for how to do things with quality.”
“There’s no question that this is a commercial enterprise,” Mr. Checketts said. “But the mission of the organization is to enhance the quality of care given to professional athletes and other athletes. It’s about research.”
Dr. Scott and a number of other doctors involved cited the group’s research into such pressing issues as concussions, the use of creatine (a body-building aid) and the significant and potentially costly decline in the use of athletic supporters by America’s young male athletes. Yes, kids aren’t wearing jockstraps anymore, and that’s not good. Surveying a landscape of quack remedies and schlocky products, the doctors in P.T.P. say they are determined to find the diamonds in the rough. “It’s amazing what claims are out there, all kinds of devices,” Dr. Scott marveled.
Proving that research bears fruit, P.T.P. is coming out with a line of orthopedic supports and braces this month under the brand name Stardox (Get it? Star Docs?), in conjunction with a company called Tru-Fit, for which P.T.P. essentially serves as a paid consultant, getting a share of the sales. “Think of us as a McKinsey group for health care,” said Dean Howes, the president and chief executive of P.T.P., and a former executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb Company who was recruited by Mr. Checketts, his neighbor in New Canaan, Conn.
“No matter how you dress it up,” said a team physician who has declined to join, “they’re talking about endorsements of products.”
A Cut Above
There’s no question that the team physicians are qualified to make those endorsements, and not just because they are at the top of their profession. Every 40-year-old former junior varsity shooting guard wants to show his torn ligament to a doctor who operates on the major-league jocks. “It’s what we call the natural halo that hangs over these doctors,” Mr. Howes said.
In 1965, Dr. James Nicholas cut open Joe Namath’s knee and ushered in the modern era of sports medicine-not as it relates to procedure (the surgery was primitive by today’s, or even yesterday’s, standards), but to the publicity showered on doctors who operate on sports stars. Dr. Nicholas’ association with Joe Namath and a slew of other athletes earned him a glowing profile in The New York Times . He helped transform the grubby world of “jock docs” into a highly lucrative and scientifically sophisticated medical niche, inspiring a generation of medical students to train their hands to fix the knees and shoulders of gifted athletes.
Dr. Scott, a native of Jersey City and a graduate of Cornell Medical School, is of that generation. He cut his teeth at the Hospital for Special Surgery and later at Lenox Hill Hospital. He joined the Knicks in 1977 and has been with them ever since. He did double duty as the doctor to the Rangers in the 1980’s. He is now chairman of orthopedics at Beth Israel Medical Center, among other things, and a major player in the world of orthopedics and sports medicine. His work for the Knicks is but an “infinitesimal” fraction of his practice, he said.
Nonetheless, it’s what gets his name in the papers. Dr. Scott’s reconstructive surgery on the knee of former Knick Bernard King is legendary, right up there with Dr. Frank Jobe’s reconstruction of baseball pitcher Tommy John’s elbow. Six years after the operation, Bernard King returned to the Garden in 1991 in a Washington Bullets uniform and relied on his new knee to score 49 points. After the game, Mr. King and Dr. Scott embraced and gave interviews.
Dr. Scott is also remembered for a surgical procedure that had a less happy result. In 1980, he operated on the right knee, rather than the injured left knee, of Nunsense actress Peggy Cass. After she noticed the mix-up in the recovery room, he had to wheel her back in and fix the other one. Afterward, Dr. Scott remarked that, as it turned out, the wrong knee had needed a little work, too. Ms. Cass didn’t agree. She sued him for malpractice, and was awarded $460,000 in 1985.
Nonetheless, he is by all accounts a fine surgeon. “You have to be very good at what you do. You can’t last otherwise,” said one doctor who used to work with a New York team. “You also need that extra confidence. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to constantly contend with the prospect of guys running out on you to go to Frank Jobe.”
It also takes chutzpah to put together a group like P.T.P. in a world dominated by established not-for-profit organizations like the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, as well as the associations within the leagues themselves. Among P.T.P.’s critics are many doctors who have grown accustomed to an insular and perhaps even outmoded way of banding together.
“There will always be doctors who have philosophical differences,” said Mr. Howes. “Some of that fear [of a for-profit enterprise] is based in being somewhat naïve. There’s no halo hanging over the head of most nonprofit organizations.”