Joe Paterno is a living legend who is no stranger to being in the headlines. Unfortunately for him, he’s been in them for all the wrong reasons lately. The news about a child molestation scandal at Penn State University has been hard to miss: a former coach is alleged to have abused several young boys, and people in positions of power in the school – notably football legend Joe Paterno – apparently had knowledge of the grotesque alleged crimes and failed to report the incidents to the police. After a period of silence from all involved, Paterno vowed to retire at the end of the season, but the Penn State Board had other ideas, deciding that now was the time, firing him immediately last Wednesday. Students were outraged and took to the streets to riot in protest, further casting the school in a horrible light.
However, by the time Saturday rolled around, PSU played its first game without Paterno calling the shots since 1965 and lost to rival Nebraska. So, now that Penn State has played its first game of many sans Paterno, we can begin to evaluate the damage done to “JoePa” the brand. How will this legendary personal brand recover and what will his legacy be years from now?
Before news of the scandal broke, Joe Paterno was known as one of the most admired figures in college football – if not in all of American sports. He was perceived as not only a fantastic football coach, but more importantly, as a great man and true leader of the young men who played for him. As far as personal brands go, his was very strong – he was really well known, successful, authentic, and generally thought of as a good person, too. The backlash that arose once his firing was announced both in the press conference and in the riots that followed that night, speak to the tremendous adoration, so many had-and still have-for Paterno. Despite the atrocious allegations, many felt strongly enough to demonstrate in the streets (even flipping over a news van) for hours – including freshmen that had been at State College for less than half of 1 year of Paterno’s 62-year career. This is the power of a strong brand. However, the outrage against him also goes to show that no brand is invincible.
Though Penn State is, in theory, first and foremost an institution of higher learning, for many people, it is about only one thing: college football. Football is a religion in State College, PA and the surrounding areas, and Joe Paterno is its leader, marching the team into the cathedral – er, stadium – in “Happy Valley” for each and every Saturday home game since 1966 (or 1950, if you include time spent as an assistant coach). Even outside of the bubble that is State College, Penn State is synonymous with college football, just without the cult-like following.
Now some quick math: If Penn State = football and football = Joe Paterno, then that means Joe Paterno = Penn State. As big as the story was before Paterno was one of its main characters, it exploded as soon as his action – or, really, the lack thereof – became clear. While others involved were certainly to blame, none of them came close to the name recognition of Paterno, and, therefore, none of them could have had nearly the effect on the story that his involvement with the scandal did.
Like with many brand crises we’ve seen, Penn State and Paterno’s refusal to address the reports at all made the problem escalate. One needs to look no further than the BP oil spill to understand where inaction leads. BP was a similarly very well-respected company that greatly tarnished its brand by its lack of response to the oil spill. It’s safe to argue that their reputation still is not back to the point at which it was prior to the spill. In the Penn State case, as the media presence – and pressure – built, Penn State and Paterno remained silent, which only created more speculation, discussion and airtime tying the two to a horrible alleged case of child abuse.
What happens from here remains to be seen. Chances are the story will not go away anytime soon – or quietly. Because of this, the way Joe Paterno will be defined by history is also up for debate. There will be two very passionate camps on this subject – JoePa and Penn State loyalists who feel that he did all he was required to do and should still have a job, and the other that believes that (reportedly) covering something like this up throws every success he ever had on the field out the window. This has already begun to play out in corporate America, as Nike has decided not to rename a building on its campus while several brands have severed ties with Penn State, and the Big 10 has removed Paterno’s name from its championship trophy.
Despite the strength of “brand JoePa” before news of the scandal broke, it probably still doesn’t compare to how injured it is right now. For most, alleged lack of action in this instance will be nearly impossible to overlook, regardless of how well-liked he was before this news surfaced. I’ve said in numerous pieces on personal branding that winning essentially cures all. However, that’s been in relation to things like being distracted by minor off-court activities – not something of this magnitude. Given that his coaching, and winning days are over, it is hard to see things improving anytime soon.
As for his legacy, only time will tell. Eventually the extreme volume of the conversation should eventually subside, and sports fans will remember JoePa's incredible on-field record. The trouble is, this smear on his image at the end of his career might be enough to make most people forget how impressive it was. To avert this, I’d advise Paterno to own up to his mistakes, admit how wrong he was not to act, and become a major advocate in the fight against child abuse/ molestation.
Still, even by engaging in major damage control, it is unlikely that JoePa ever becomes the brand he once was. Someday we will all learn what actually happened by the interviews and legal testimony, and that could change things. At this time, it’s hard to imagine Paterno ever being the much beloved character he was just a few short weeks ago.