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Why Brand Protection Was Penn State's Downfall

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

The value of the brand can be the differentiator between a good company and a great one. However, what happens when a brand becomes too powerful or too valuable? This is the story of Pennsylvania State University.

Founded in 1855 with a mission grounded in teaching, research and public service, this institution has evolved from a small agricultural college to a community that includes over 90,000 students spread across 24 different campuses. The university currently administers an endowment of more than $1.5 billion, but more on that later. The university also boasts one of the storied programs in all of college sports with its football program previously lead by the winningest coach in Division I college football history.

Just a few weeks ago, the very future of this institution was thrown into question because of the strength of its brand embodied by the football program and its leader. How could a football program or coach become so important to an institution of learning that its demise could threaten its future? Taking a closer look at the timeline of events helps bring to light some serious questions as to what is important to us as a culture and where true value lies.

Joe Paterno took over as the head football coach of Penn State back in 1966. As far back as 1998, and perhaps further depending on who you believe, Paterno became aware of a possible child-sex scandal developing around his long-time defensive coordinator and one-time sure-fire successor Jerry Sandusky. This is where the unthinkable end to this story began.

A systemic and comprehensive cover up began to take form, including police, coaching assistants, university administrators, a district attorney (who disappeared soon after initiating the Sandusky investigation in 1998, was never found and is now presumed dead) and potentially countless others who knew of Sandusky’s alleged crimes. In this era of the internet, social media, smart phones and transparency, did the university think that this scandal could be kept in-house? More importantly, why would the university or Paterno, or any of those who knew what had allegedly happened not go to the police?

While there is some controversy as to whether or not the authorities were contacted, the fact remains that following the initial investigation in 1998, there were several more alleged abuse allegations made against Sandusky.  The fact that authorities weren’t contacted, or the right authorities weren’t contacted or simply that not enough was done to stop what was happening is sickening, and hard to hear, read or write about.

The worst part about this mess, other than the suffering of the victims and their families, is that it is all about money. This cover up has nothing to do with football or education; it has to do with that $1.5 billion endowment and the brand of Penn St. University. The football program and its leader had become so symbolic of the strength and tradition of the university that those in charge decided that the protection of that brand was more important than anything else; more important than the laws of this country or the general moral code of human kind.

Ego surely had a major role in keeping Paterno on that sideline for so many years and also had a role in covering up this scandal. But sadly, and ultimately it comes down to money.

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