Author’s note: To Penn State haters, you should skip this. Spend some more time on the comment boards. Express your outrage. Let us have it with both barrels. We deserve it. If you have a second, please mention your favorite team; and if we play them, I hope that we win. And if we don’t, well, we deserve that, too.
I’m a pretty big Penn State football fan. Go to most of the home games. My first date with my wife was a Penn State game. In a year, both our daughters will have degrees from there. I’m invested in the brand. So of course, like every other Penn State fan or alum, I am mortified and devastated by the events of the last nine months.
Sports brand loyalty is a unique animal. People become fans of a team for many reasons and may endure decades or more of losing, complaining the whole way. If it were any other kind of brand loyalty they would almost certainly switch to another one. Sports brand loyalties run deep. But this is a tough test by any standard.
All brand loyalty is defined at its core by the self-esteem factor people feel when they use it. Take the kids to Disney and feel like a good parent. Donate to United Way and feel generous. Use FedEx and feel like a smart manager. But sports brands go to the heart of self-image. Sports brands are tribal. Attending a game or even watching on TV can be a powerful communal experience.
Brands are also about trust (which is why brands that try to distinguish themselves as “trustworthy” are wasting their time) and Penn State has badly violated the trust of their supporters. Yet, in order for Penn State fans to rebuild their pride, we will have to accept the shame. Yes, people at the university were wrong. Yes, our coach should have done far more to protect those children instead of his program. Yes, a football program should have far greater oversight than it apparently did. And yes, universities should be about education and student-athletes, not athlete-students.
Imagine for a moment, though, the brand that could emerge from this. Imagine the university’s brand shifting to being more about their real mission, which they already deliver on exceptionally well. The quality of their teaching hasn’t changed. Their national reputation for outstanding graduates had it ranked number one among recruiters in a study reported on recently in The Wall St. Journal. Thon is the largest and most successful student run charity in the world, raising more than $9 million last year. And imagine if Penn State chose to become the leading advocate for child abuse awareness and prevention. They could go far beyond the $60 million fine required by the NCAA, engage their faithful supporters and create a positive social change in the way Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed public perceptions for intoxicated drivers.
There’s going to be more bumping along the bottom for sometime longer and the football program will likely feel the effects of this for a decade or more. But the university can use this self-inflicted destruction to be better and become admired again.
I was at the game only a few days after the allegations first hit the news. The two teams huddled at midfield and prayed for victims of child abuse. Then the familiar cheer grew stronger: We are…Penn State… We are…Penn State! It was the beginning of the most loyal Penn State fans bonding and saying, “We will stick together and make things right again.” It was emotional and there were few dry eyes in the stadium. But it also showed the power of what Penn State means to people, and that it extends far beyond football on a few Saturdays each fall.
So this is what I believe as loyalist to the brand of Penn State: The people who came just to see winning football games may fade away, but the rest of us will accept the shame of what our leaders allowed to happen. We will come to accept the destruction of our beloved football legend. And while we will never be the same, we can be better and we will be better than we ever were before. The brand ideal of excellence in education and sports was not as real as we thought, but we can make it real again. We were, we will be, and we are…Penn State.