Yes, you can’t really miss the irony of Gerry Sandusky weighing in on a situation that traces back to Jerry Sandusky. For those of you late to the dance, we aren’t related. With that preamble out of the way, let’s dive into the importance of uniforms making a statement, and why any business leader facing a serious challenge to his or her company brand should pay close attention to Penn State.
New Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien has, according to Rich Scarcella of NittanyExtra.com, told parents of players, that he has talked to Nike about changing Penn State’s uniforms. It’s controversial, for sure, but it’s also a bold sign of leadership. Changing the uniforms won’t change the past. It won’t change the anguish felt by fans, alumni, players, students, and most importantly, the victims in the Penn State scandal. But it will send a visible message of change.
For decades, Penn State’s refusal to change its uniforms spoke to tradition, Joe Pa, and the bubble of Happy Valley. Now, Penn State officials, on the heels of NCAA sanctions and a pounding in the national media, talk about the importance of changing its athletic culture. They talk about never allowing the same crimes and cover up ever happen again. Just as for years, Penn State relied on its uniforms to show its commitment to change, the school and the team now have an opportunity to use the uniform to show a commitment to change.
This marks the perfect time to show a break from the past, a demarcation between the old way of looking away from the difficult and the new way of facing a challenge head on, openly, honestly.
It will take far more than a fashion make-over to make that happen, but a uniform change would boldly proclaim the message that the school and the team take seriously the idea of change.
Leaders in sports, in business, in life, can’t merely talk about change. They have to show evidence of it. They have to create and present symbols of change when relying on tradition no longer serves the cause of excellence. Symbols communicate in ways that words can’t.
Any organization, sports or business, that tries to roll out a new logo or look without taking the time to think about what it really means, will, more often than not, see insipid results in the marketplace. But when a new look reflects a new reality, marks a new era, and shows new leadership, the new look can say what no speech, no blog, no letter can say.
Former Penn State great and NFL hall of fame running back Lenny Moore told me this week that a change in the uniform would hurt him because those old uniforms link him to Joe Paterno and the past. I completely understand. Make no mistake about it, change hurts. But the inability to subject itself to the short-term pain of a horrible discovery led Penn State to far greater damage in the long term. Change is never easy. Any school, team, or business that has gone through trying times knows that change can also mean more than a break from the past. It can mean building a brighter future.
Followers need a symbol to see the direction of change. Leaders need to provide those symbols. Penn State has missed on the timing with this tragic demolition of its past, its tradition, from the earliest days of discovering a crime. It has another moment in front of it right now, a moment to show change while the whole country looks on.