When the Penn State scandal first broke, I wondered what the school could do to improve its severely tarnished reputation. Now, with the NCAA’s punishment on the books, it’ll be years before Penn State will be able to do that.
To build a brand is to build trust. At the core, brands are reliable. You know what to expect from them; brand standards govern a company or institution’s behavior. The key to building trust, of course, is transparency. Building trust is quite simple, actually: you do what you say you’re going to do, unless you can’t. If you can’t, you tell people as soon as you know you can’t. If you make a mistake, you fix it and apologize. (“You were right, I was wrong. I’m sorry” carries a ton of weight, because so often apologies come in the form of “I’m sorry BUT …” which isn’t a real apology.)
Ironically, Penn State damaged its brand most by trying to protect it. The damning information revealed by the Freeh report indicates that Penn State’s senior officials covered up years of Sandusky’s incorrigible behavior, at the expense of children (and having volunteered in rape crisis, I feel confident in saying that there are more kids who just didn’t come forward). And here’s something I know for sure, as a marketer and as a person who lives in the world: if you get caught lying or covering up, the fallout is always worse than it would be if you just owned up. As a teen, when I lied to my parents, I got in trouble for doing the thing I wasn’t supposed to be doing, and for lying on top of that. They were always angrier about the lying. And none of my teenage antics were anything close to this.
Now Penn State is “that school that let kids get raped.” Not “that school that found out that kids were getting raped, fired the guy who was raping them and turned him in to the police, and got the kids some help.” Which one is the one you’d send your kids to? Which is the school you’d encourage your star players to play for?
And this is leaving football aside, which I recognize is hard to do at a school like Penn State. (I have pride in my alma mater but I think I went to one football game in four years.) Penn State lost sponsors when all this broke – and I’d bet that more will pull out. They should. Those more knowledgeable about college sports than I say that the postseason ban and the scholarship restrictions strongly limit Penn State from putting together a team that can achieve the success it’s used to, and that this will be the case for at least five years after the penalties are lifted. The NCAA is allowing Penn State players to immediately transfer and play elsewhere if they choose, which will very likely incite a mass exodus (and really, if you’re a freshman or sophomore, why would you stay?), decimating the program.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said the sanctions were designed to ensure that “… football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.” Penn State released a statement almost immediately after the NCAA handed down its sanctions, saying it accepted them and that the “ruling holds the university accountable for the failure of those in power to protect children and insists that all areas of the university community are held to the same high standards of honesty and integrity." Coach Bill O’Brien offered a similar sentiment.
In order to save any kind of face, they couldn’t do anything else – to dispute the sanctions with everything that’s come to light would only reinforce the idea that football matters more than the safety of innocent kids. Penn State has to take its lumps. And it should keep its head down for a while, although I would guess its next football season will be heavily scrutinized– who stayed, who left, how O’Brien does, how well the games are attended. I’ll be curious to see how Penn State’s enrollment numbers look over the next few years; anecdotally, I spoke with someone on a recent flight who had a relative who had been accepted but declined the offer of admission when the story broke, and I’m sure she’s not the only one to do so.
What can they do? Own up. Keep their heads down, do the work required to improve their standing as an institution and sports program, and when something goes wrong, tell the truth. Take a lesson from parents everywhere: “It’ll be better for you if you just come clean.”