Sponsor pulls logo; others weigh future with MSU

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

One of the Michigan State athletic department’s most-visible sponsors requested the removal of its logo from the backdrop used at MSU press conferences amid the wave of negative publicity surrounding the university.

Trevor Mahoney, a spokesperson for Lansing-based Auto-Owners Insurance, told The News that his company didn’t want its branding in the backdrop at Friday’s press conferences at Breslin Center, one of several sponsors to publicly express concerns about their affiliation with MSU.

Football coach Mark Dantonio spoke before the men’s basketball game and basketball coach Tom Izzo spoke after the game against Wisconsin, both standing in front of a green backdrop with no sponsorships — while being peppered with questions over allegations they mishandled assault allegations levied against their players over several years.

“The company does not believe it is currently appropriate to place advertising branding on media backdrops used during discussions of serious topics that have impacted the lives of many,” Mahoney said in a statement.

Mahoney declined to respond to further questions, including whether Auto-Owners Insurance would continue supporting Michigan State athletics.

The move by Auto-Owners comes as Moody’s Investors Service announced Tuesday that the agency plans to review MSU’s credit rating for a downgrade, another sign of the fallout amid sex abuse scandal. The review could affect about $975 million of long-term debt associated with the East Lansing school, which now has an Aa1 rating, Moody’s said.

Auto-Owners Insurance is one of eight partners/sponsors listed on Michigan State University’s athletics website. The News reached out to each of them this week to see where their sponsorship status stood, in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal and the ensuing public relations crisis in the athletic department, and seven responded. None of the sponsors would confirm any changes or terminations of agreements, but several expressed concerns.

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Also expressing “deep concerns” was the university’s sports-apparel partner, Nike.

Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bank said in a statement it is “closely monitoring the rapidly developing events.”

“We are extremely saddened and disheartened by the news surrounding Michigan State University’s athletic programs, female athletes and students,” Huntington said in its statement, provided by spokesperson Matt Samson. “The victims and their families have shown tremendous courage in telling their stories. All of our Huntington colleagues sympathize with them.

“We have expressed our deep concern to the university and we fully expect MSU’s complete cooperation with all investigations.”

Michigan State University Federal Credit Union said it is "keeping a watchful eye" on developments at the university, but said it remains committed to supporting students and survivors. MSUFCU, aside from its athletic partnership, also helps sponsor arts and cultural programs, MSU Safe Place — a shelter for victims of domestic abuse — and other programs, the credit union said in a statement.

"At MSUFCU, we wish to express our deepest empathy and concern for the victims and survivors of Larry Nassar, and recognize the tremendous courage they have demonstrated," it said in a statement, provided by chief marketing officer Deidre Davis.

Sparrow Health System, which oversees four hospitals in Michigan, including one in Lansing, “has made no decisions” regarding its continued partnership, according to Ilene Cantor, a spokesperson for the company.

McLaren Greater Lansing has “no plans at this time to alter its support of Michigan State University and MSU athletics,” said Brian Brown, the health system’s vice president of marketing and business development.

Meanwhile, nonprofit United Dairy Industry of Michigan, which provides the athletic department with chocolate milk for student athletes, said that would continue. A spokesperson said, “We are vested in continuing to support Michigan State student-athletes,” as it does with several other state colleges. The relationship between the university and the Okemos-based company isn’t fiscally rooted, but rather product-based. Most other corporate partnerships are believed to have a monetary agreement.

A representative from Farm Bureau Insurance didn't return multiple messages seeking comment.

Michigan State also has a lucrative partnership with sports-apparel behemoth Nike, which in 2015 signed a 10-year contract that provides the athletic department with $34 million in cash, equipment and gear, including jerseys.

Late Tuesday night, Nike sent a statement to The News.

"Nike stands in support of athletes and the bravery and courage of all survivors," the company said in its statement, provided by spokesman Greg Rossiter. "We strongly condemn the horrific abuse that occurred and have communicated our deep concerns to Michigan State University. We are closely monitoring the NCAA investigation at Michigan State University and the Board of Trustees actions that address the safety and well-being of student-athletes."

The statement echos a response Nike sent to former Spartan rower Cate Hannum, who reached out to Nike over concerns about its  continued partnership with the university. Nike, in its letter to Hannum that she posted on Twitter, called the reports of abuse “heartbreaking and abhorrent.” Hannum, a former patient of disgraced doctor Nassar, also received a phone call from a representative of Nike.

The News reached out to the university seeking the state of athletic sponsorships, specifically whether any sponsors have expressed concerned, and whether any sponsors have terminated contracts.

Jason Cody, university spokesperson, declined to get into specifics.

“We appreciate all of our sponsors and their support,” Cody said. “As our Board of Trustees said last week, we are united in our determination to take all necessary steps to begin a new day and create a culture that provides a safe environment for all members of our community.”

Nassar, the former Michigan State doctor and USA Gymnastics trainer, was sentenced last week to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing scores of female athletes over a span of nearly 20 years. He remained employed until 2016, despite at least 14 university representatives being notified of victim complaints over the years, according to a Detroit News investigation.

Also last week, long-time university president Lou Anna Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis resigned amid intensifying public pressure, and ESPN published a scathing report that called into question whether dozens of assault allegations, sexual or otherwise, have been handled properly by Michigan State over the years, including by high-profile coaches Dantonio and Izzo.