Penn State Sponsors Start to Flee in Wake of Sex Abuse Scandal

Cars.com, Sherwin-Williams Back Away, but Nike Has No Plans to Rename Its Joe Paterno Child Development Center

By Published on .

The sponsor fallout has begun as a result of the horrific allegations of child sexual abuse charges made against a former Penn State University assistant football coach, allegations that have already cost legendary head football coach Joe Paterno and school president Graham Spanier their jobs.

Online automobile shopping company Cars.com has withdrawn its presenting sponsorship of Saturday 's Penn State-Nebraska football game on ESPN due to the allegations, while paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams has taken its logo off the banner that serves as a backdrop to all Penn State football press conferences.

The scandal has rocked not only the college-football world but the entire country with its graphic grand jury testimony. Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged last Saturday with 40 counts of sexual abuse of eight young boys over a 15-year period. Mr. Sandusky, long thought to be the successor to Mr. Paterno, abruptly retired in 1999.

And details from the grand jury report revealed that another Penn State assistant coach, Mike McQueary, witnessed Mr. Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the school's football facility in 2002. Mr. McQueary told Mr. Paterno, who reported the incident to his superiors -- athletic director Tim Curley and school vice-president Gary Schultz, the head of campus police. But all the school did was to ban Mr. Sandusky from the athletic facilities. Mssrs. Curley and Schultz were arrested and charged with perjury for lying to the grand jury. Mr. Curley has taken a leave of absence from Penn State and Mr. Schultz resigned.

College football is a $2.6 billion business and Penn State one of its premiere brands -- it had revenue of $70 million from football last year. The school has been under heavy national criticism for having failed a moral obligation to at least report the incident to state and/or federal authorities. Mr. Paterno, in particular, who has wielded considerable power on the Penn State campus, was under fire for not following up on the allegations after he passed them along to his athletic director.

The apparent ethical ambivalence to the shocking allegations, and the allegations themselves, led to Cars.com backing out of its sponsorship of Saturday 's nationally televised Penn State-Nebraska game on ESPN. The network made the announcement Thursday evening, and Cars.com issued the following statement to AdAge.com:

"Due to the recent allegations surrounding the Penn State Football program, Cars.com notified ESPN on Tuesday morning of its plans to withdraw from this weekend's sponsorship of the Nebraska at Penn State game, as well as next weekend's game between Penn State and Ohio State. As a proud, longtime supporter of ESPN College Football, it's important to us that we're building our brand in a way that celebrates the sport, its fans and the dedication of its student athletes.

"ESPN is a valuable media partner, and the overall scope of our investment with the network, including our support of other programming and advertising on ESPN's digital assets, hasn't changed. In this instance, we worked with ESPN to redistribute our commercial ad units during these games."

The Sherwin-Williams logo was noticeably absent from Thursday's press conference for new interim Penn State football coach Tom Bradley, a longtime assistant under Mr. Paterno. Instead, the blue banner had just a Penn State logo and the school's website address.

Calls to Sherwin-Williams' Cleveland offices were not returned.

On Penn State's official athletic website, gopsusports.com, a page that listed more than two dozen national and local corporate partners just a day ago -- including such blue-chip brands as Pepsi and Nike -- under the heading of "Penn State Athletics would like to thank its Corporate Partners for their support," is now blank. Penn State has long been a Pepsi campus, beginning with the signing of a $14 million, 10-year contract in 1992. That contract gave PepsiCo exclusive vending and advertising rights on each of Penn State's 21 campuses. Pepsi did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising, said the situation will only get worse before it gets better.

"We still haven't heard the full story, and it's not going to go away for quite a while. Every college football Saturday will bring it to the forefront," he said. "New allegations may emerge, new victims may come forward. Expect more sponsors to cut the cord. They're morally obligated to separate themselves from the program. As I've said before, there are two scandals that are too reprehensible to overcome, marketing-wise: murder and child molestation."

Cutting the cord may be easier said than done for at least one marketer: the sponsor of whatever bowl game Penn State makes it into this year. With an 8-1 record, the team has already qualified for such a game and the Big 10 has contracts with multiple bowls.

Seattle Weekly reported that Nike has no current plans to rename one of the buildings on its Beaverton, Ore., campus -- the Joe Paterno Child Development Center. In a statement, Nike told the magazine, "Our relationship with Penn State remains unchanged. We are deeply disturbed by the claims brought forth in the indictments. We will continue to monitor the situation closely."

Nike has traditionally stuck by its endorsers. It did not sever a relationship with National Basketball Association star Kobe Bryant after Mr. Bryant was accused of sexual assault and, after charges were dismissed, admitted to infidelity. Nor did it drop golfer Tiger Woods after it was revealed two years ago that Mr. Woods had numerous extramarital affairs.

In this article:
Most Popular