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Art & Commerce: Out of Bounds

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You may, from time to time, find yourself in disagreement with someone else's opinion. At times like these, please keep in mind it's safer and more polite to take issue with the comments rather than the person." —From the Madison Square Garden Corp. code of conduct

Madison Square Garden: Most people know it as simply "the Garden" or "the world's most famous arena." For more than a century, it has been home to historic events and some of the most memorable moments in sports, politics and music. There have been legendary boxing matches, political conventions, rodeos, rock concerts, benefits, Rangers and Knicks games.

Over the years a solid, well-defined and memorable brand was forged. But regardless of whether the jury in the Anucha Browne Sanders lawsuit got the sexual harassment verdict right, the MSG brand is now a tarnished Heavyweight Champion's belt, a dented Lord Stanley's Cup.

Most fans, being fans, would likely be satisfied with a better Knicks season (keep dreaming), a playoff spot for the Rangers or killer seats at the Springsteen concert. This total train wreck might even increase attendance at Knicks games by rubberneckers for a while.

But the relationship with advertisers and marketing partners whose own brands get in bed with MSG might be another story. Certainly, at least in the short term, MSG could take a beating. Today there are just too many places for advertisers to spend their money. Bravado, at this point, is pointless and destructive.

Remember: Although Kobe Bryant's rape charge was dropped, the L.A. Laker lost endorsement deals with McDonald's and Nutella. Radio host Don Imus was fired after Procter & Gamble and American Express pulled their ads from his morning show. And Nike has suspended the release of Michael Vick's shoe, while Rawlings has dropped him altogether.

Manufacturing mishaps and product recalls, unfortunately, happen with more frequency than anyone would like. People are hurt. Companies go out of business. This month the Topps Meat Co. announced it was closing after 67 years because of an extensive recall due to an E. coli scare, from which it says it cannot recover. Mattel awaits its fate after unprecedented toy recalls.

Still, companies have weathered these storms by admitting their mistakes and accepting responsibility. Supply chains are overhauled, quality control is tightened and labeling and packaging are improved. How a brand fares after a catastrophe is determined in large part by how management reacts to adversity. Tylenol remains a trusted brand 25 years after its tampering ordeal due to the way Johnson & Johnson and then CEO James Burke addressed the issue. Immediate, apologetic and confident, his words were comforting, and backed up by industry-changing actions.

But what happens when the leaders entrusted with upholding brand image are in denial? What message does that send to employees, customers and marketing partners? Unless there is an acceptance of wrongdoing and meaningful tools are put in place to address these issues, the mistake will be repeated.

In the case of MSG and its parent company, Cablevision, more damage may be done by not accepting blame and strongly suggesting Knicks coach and general manager Isiah Thomas "take one for the team."

We hear of sexual discrimination and harassment, abusive behavior, drugs and firearms continually connected with professional sports. This above-the-law mentality and these unconscionable actions send a warped and destructive message to the athletic community and the young people who worship these athletes. Thomas, a Hall of Famer, and MSG chairman James Dolan seem to possess the same inculpable attitude. Their bravado and denial only hinder the brand's recovery.

Why management didn't try to settle this outside the courts is anyone's guess. But surely the MSG brand will take a bigger hit than $11.6 million for not admitting guilt or making concrete changes and trying to manage the damage done.

Perhaps management stands by its innocence, thinks its brand hasn't been harmed and this issue will just go away. The two female MSG employees and the Rangers' City Skater who last week filed lawsuits of their own beg to differ.

Dolan and Thomas should take their medicine, admit their guilt and begin rebuilding. It won't be as easy as signing a top free agent. There must be concrete policy changes that go beyond posting a code of conduct on the MSG Web site. They must first believe it, then adhere to it and enforce it. Salvaging MSG will take a strategic brand plan, one implemented as flawlessly as a winning game plan.

Harvey Hoffenberg is president of Propulsion LLC, a branding firm in New Canaan, Conn. He can be reached at hhoffenberg@propulsionllc.com.