Status of MSU's sponsors remains mostly unchanged amid national news
In the wake of MSU’s negative publicity in handling ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, some of MSU Athletics’ sponsors have expressed “deep concerns” with MSU and have been “monitoring” the university’s actions.
MSU alumna Catherine Hannum, survivor of Nassar’s abuse, called for Nike to rethink its partnership with MSU and MSU Athletics via Twitter on Jan. 24, “in light of the university’s failure to respond appropriately” to the Nassar case.
In 2014, Nike signed a 10-year contract that provides the MSU Athletic Department with $34 million in cash, equipment and gear.
Hannum said she decided to write a letter to Nike asking the company to reconsider its partnership with MSU after she found out Under Armour and AT&T cut ties with USA Gymnastics in the past.
“I felt like that sent such a strong message to the organization that they really need to clean up their act and that these brands weren’t going to be associated with an organization that clearly mistreated their athletes,” Hannum said.
Hannum said she understands Under Armour and AT&T are sponsors of USA Gymnastics and Nike, rather, is an apparel partner with MSU. However, she still believes wearing Nike products as an MSU athlete is representing the Nike brand.
“Michigan State clearly isn’t doing the right thing. They failed us, their athletes, so many times by allowing us to see this monster (Larry Nassar),” she said. “So, I just felt like I needed to reach out to Nike and just see if they would maybe listen and take into consideration the fact that they were aligning themselves with an organization that is so clearly not representing their own values.”
In response to Hannum’s request, Nike Senior Director of Global Communications Sabrina Oei wrote, “We stand in support of athletes and we’ve expressed our deep concerns with Michigan State University. We are following the details of the rapidly developing events at the university and evolving actions by the Board of Trustees.
“In addition, we are closely monitoring the NCAA inquiry regarding potential rules violations at Michigan State University to understand how they will address protecting the safety, health, and well-being of athletes.”
Hannum said Nike’s response letter isn’t exactly what she wanted to hear. But she did sense sincerity when she spoke to a representative on the phone.
“I was happy that they said that they had communicated their concerns with the university and that it was something that they took very seriously, and that they supported me and they supported the survivors,” she said. “That was reassuring to hear, especially from a brand like that.”
Although Hannum sent her request to Nike before former MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon’s resignation and former MSU athletic director Mark Hollis’ retirement, Hannum still thinks more action needs to be taken at the university, primarily the Board of Trustees.
Hannum said she doesn’t want her fellow student-athletes to be negatively affected by MSU and MSU Athletics’ sponsors and partners altering their support.
She said the refusal for these organizations to drop their partnerships gives her the impression that money, football and basketball are more important to them than female athletes.
“We were already negatively affected by Nassar for so many years,” she said. “The other thing you have to consider is the women on the USA Gymnastics team didn’t do anything wrong either, but their Spartan sponsorships were pulled because of the failure of the organization, and that’s supposed to inspire and encourage the organization to reboot their policies and enforce them more firmly.”
Although Hannum said she understands the other perspective, she also thinks pulling these sponsorships or partnerships could ultimately lead MSU to take action after years of enabling sexual abuse.
“I guess I would just urge them (MSU's partners and sponsors) to really consider what the university is doing and what it really is that they’re protecting,” she said. “It’s an easy cop-out to say that you’re going to stick with your sponsorship because you don’t want to affect the student-athletes, because we weren’t being protected in the first place.”
Among the seven sponsors listed on MSU Athletics’ website, not including MSU organizations such as MSU's Alumni Association and Spartans Sports Network, six responded with a comment or statement at the time of publication.
Matt Samson, director of communications for Huntington Bank, emailed a statement and said the colleagues at Huntington are saddened and disheartened by the news surrounding MSU’s athletic programs, female athletes and students.
“The victims and their families have shown tremendous courage in telling their stories. All of our Huntington colleagues sympathize with them,” he said in the emailed statement. "We have expressed our deep concern to the University and we fully expect MSU’s complete cooperation with all investigations. In the Interim, we are closely monitoring the situation.”
Brian Brown, vice president of marketing and business development at McLaren Greater Lansing, wrote in an email that McLaren has "no plans at this time to alter support of Michigan State University and MSU athletics."
Kathi Eckler, executive director of marketing and communication for the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, said United Dairy will continue to provide student-athletes with chocolate milk.
Eckler said that pulling the partnership would affect student-athletes, but they will continue to monitor the situation to see if things change.
Deidre Davis, spokesperson for Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, or MSUFCU, said MSUFCU has had a longstanding partnership with MSU, supporting students through athletics, academics and study abroad scholarships.
“We are planning to continue that, because the students are really who we’re supporting through everything that we do and we believe that that support will continue into the future,” she said.
Davis said MSUFCU is also monitoring the ongoing events at MSU.
“We are definitely keeping an eye on what is going on, because we definitely want to see progress toward positive improvement and change, but, again, because our sponsorship really supports the students, we don’t feel that it’s right to necessarily pull that back given what’s going on because we want to continue to support the students," Davis said.
Davis also said MSUFCU expresses empathy and concern for all of the victims and survivors of Nassar.
“We recognize the tremendous courage that they have demonstrated through all of this,” Davis said.
In an emailed statement, Jennifer Miller, the communications, public relations and advertising manager for Farm Bureau Insurance, said the company is heartbroken by the events and news surrounding MSU.
"We are closely monitoring the events and investigations involving the university," according to the statement. "First and foremost, we take this very seriously. We seek healing for the survivors and their families and expect a clear explanation of protocols in place to protect the safety and well-being of all Michigan State University athletes, students, and patients."
John Foren, director of media and public relations at Sparrow Health System, said "no decisions have been made" at this time regarding the company's sponsorship status.
Auto-Owners Insurance could not be contacted for comment by the time of publication.
Editor's note — This article was last updated at 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 9 to include statements and comments from Sparrow Health System and Farm Bureau Insurance.