Archive for Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wristen: T-shirt suit makes KU look silly

July 15, 2008

The evening of April 5 brought me to Lawrence for two reasons, both involving humor.

First, comedian Daniel Tosh was performing a stand-up show at Liberty Hall. Second, I needed a new T-shirt to wear two nights later for the University of Kansas men's basketball team's highly anticipated showdown with former coach Roy Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels in the Final Four.

I needed something new; something blue; something that said Kansas is better than UNC.

There was only one shirt on my mind, and it wasn't officially licensed by KU. It read "Kansas: The birthplace of North Carolina Basketball," and it was on sale for about $15. In my opinion it was much better than the lame "Benedict Williams" shirts, as well as far more accurate.

I bought the shirt at Joe-College.com, a T-shirt store in downtown Lawrence that sells some humorous and some tasteless products. It has been the subject of a nasty legal battle with KU over trademark infringement. The lawsuit began brewing almost the day the store opened in early 2006, and it finally wrapped up Monday afternoon when a jury ordered Joe-College.com owner Larry Sinks to pay KU $127,337 in profits and royalties from the store.

KU - my alma mater - has drawn its share of criticism in recent weeks because of the lawsuit. Critics have blasted Lew Perkins, the Kansas athletics director, for being a greedy dictator who has ruthlessly gone after the heroic local business owner who is just trying to make a living. KU has been accused of being too uptight and trying to stifle free speech.

Much of this criticism has been levied with complete disregard to the fact that Sinks' products clearly were referencing KU. It doesn't matter if he had 200 signs posted in his shop telling customers he wasn't selling licensed apparel.

Using myself as an example, there was no question in my mind when I bought my shirt whether or not it was approved by KU. I knew it wasn't. I didn't care. I liked the shirt. It was cheap, historically accurate and classier than most shirts that Joe-College.com sells.

It's a safe bet other Joe-College.com customers also know the profits from their purchase are not going back to the university. Attend any KU football or basketball game and the chances are good you'll see more shirts from Joe-College.com being worn by students than official KU merchandise.

Judging by the number of Kansas fans that have opted to purchase Sinks' products (some including themes such as "Fighting Manginos," "Rock Chalk Baby!" and "Beware of the Phog") for their game day attire as opposed to officially licensed gear, the ultimate message may be twofold. First, fans are purchasing KU gear that the university doesn't endorse (thus, the lawsuit - however petty it may seem - was justified). Second, KU should do a better job meeting fans' demand for more creative gear so they won't look elsewhere for products.

About 50 T-shirts will be taken off the market, but Joe-College.com isn't going anywhere. That being the case, KU clearly has an image problem. It can look silly on T-shirts or silly in court. If this case has shown anything, it's that fans would rather have the former than the latter.

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