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Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2008

Meet Joe College

Entrepreneur draws ire of KU Athletics

Larry Sinks, owner of JoeCollege.com, is pictured in front of his store Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. Sinks has been in and out of the news because of his legal battles with Kansas University over licensing issues involving his t-shirts.

Larry Sinks, owner of JoeCollege.com, is pictured in front of his store Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. Sinks has been in and out of the news because of his legal battles with Kansas University over licensing issues involving his t-shirts.

November 16, 2008

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Lawrence T-shirt entrepreneur Larry Sinks may live forever through the phrase Muck Fizzou - the borderline profane motto of Tiger-haters the world over that first rolled off Sinks' tongue in the early 1980s.

But Sinks is not taking any chances on immortality. That's one of the few chances he won't take.

"My saying is that everybody dies, but only a few people live," Sinks says from the backroom of his Joe College.com store in downtown Lawrence.

Perhaps not surprisingly from a man who has been selling the quintessential souvenir -T-shirts - since he was 19, souvenirs of a life lived stand out everywhere in Sink's makeshift office.

Slightly scuffed racing helmets signed by Indy 500 winners sit like trophies on a corner shelf. Personal party pictures of Hank Williams Jr., Kid Rock and Derrick Thomas consume a bulletin board behind the computer that he uses to "panhandle" the planet for clever words and phrases.

But on this day, there's even a shinier medal that he wants to show a visitor. He shuffles through a bit of paperwork and produces a photo of himself, a member of the A.J. Foyt racing family and two swimsuit models at the Playboy mansion, its date stamped just a couple of weeks ago.

"That's where it is at," he says as he taps the glossy.

His wife of 13 years, Carrie, laughs at the story.

"You know what Larry is," Carrie Sinks says. "He's a guy's guy."

Well, not every guy's. There are a couple atop Mt. Oread who don't care for him much at all.

In the last couple of years, Sinks - 45 and a native of East Lawrence - has become much more than a phrase peddler. He's become a complicated case in trademark law, a First Amendment champion and - to hear him tell it - a David who took on the Lawrence Goliath known as the Kansas University Athletic Corp.

But even he admits a slayer he is not. Sinks did go toe-to-toe with Kansas University Athletic Department leaders in a federal lawsuit that accused Sinks and his business of printing more than 200 different T-shirts - everything from Muck Fizzou to Our Coach Can Eat Your Coach - that violated Kansas University trademarks and damaged the school's reputation.

A jury delivered a verdict in July, but determining a winner has been difficult. The jury found that about 50 of the T-shirts infringed on KU's trademark and ordered Sinks to pay the university $127,337 in profits.

The ruling was not steep enough to force Sinks to close his business, but it did leave him bloody and bitter. In total, Sinks estimates the case has cost him about $400,000, causing him to deplete college and retirement funds.

"All this is is a personal vendetta by Lew Perkins," said Sinks, who said the athletic director sent a staff member to the store to complain during the first two weeks it was open. "Let's call it what it is. He doesn't like me. He doesn't like my T-shirts, and he's made it a personal vendetta to try to take me down."

If there is a vendetta, some argue Sinks has taken pleasure in poking the bear. Shortly after Kansas University renamed its football field Kivisto Field after a prominent donor, Sinks - to the chagrin of KU - filed for a trademark on the name Kivisto Field.

But these days, Sinks says he's simply speaking an inconvenient Lawrence truth.

"I'm not a fan of Lew Perkins and that administration," Sinks said. "I'm not ashamed to say it. What they have done to me and my family is wrong. I'm not a fan. I'm not the only one in this town who feels that way, but a lot of people are just scared to say it."

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This much seems clear: Larry Sinks is persona non grata in many offices at the Kansas University Athletic Department. When asked to comment on this story, athletics department spokesman Jim Marchiony's position was clear.

"We have nothing to say about Larry Sinks," Marchiony said.

What's not so clear, though, is whether Sinks' problems with the university really began with the arrival of Lew Perkins, as Sinks contends.

For a time, Sinks was in good with the university. He was an owner of Lawrence-based Midwest Graphics, which had a license from KU to print official KU shirts, and his company was just one of seven in the country that was licensed to print official NCAA Final Four shirts. At the time, one of his best friends and frequent nightlife buddies was KU basketball coach Larry Brown.

Sinks sold the company - which grew to about $5 million a year in sales - in 1996. After honoring a five-year no-compete clause, Sinks opened a new Lawrence screen printing business, Victory Sportswear. In 2002, he applied for a university license to produce KU gear. He was turned down.

In testimony in the recent federal trail, KU officials said they rejected the trademark, in part, because an audit of the financial records of Midwest Graphics showed that Sinks was underreporting the sales of KU merchandise. That means the university wasn't being paid its full share of royalties.

All this happened at least a year before Perkins arrived at KU in 2003.

Sinks denies underreporting sales to KU, saying the university improperly made him pay for fraternity and sorority shirts he produced. Despite that pre-Perkins spat, Sinks said he's still convinced Perkins and his staff are treating him vastly differently from others because of who he is.

Sinks says - and the Journal-World confirmed - that some KU-licensed retailers are currently selling T-shirts that say "Our Coach Can Eat Your Coach," which was one of the 50 shirts found to violate KU's trademarks, and was said to be damaging to the university.

Sinks says KU leaders know of the sales but have done nothing to stop them.

When asked about the shirts, Marchiony simply said: "I'm not going to get into that."

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The common perception in the public, though, is that it wasn't the coach-eating shirt that pushed KU over the edge. It was the Muck Fizzou shirt, which caused KU leaders to cringe every time it showed up in the background of a nationally televised game from Allen Fieldhouse.

But common perceptions can be wrong. For example, many believe Sinks - as the man who coined the phrase - is living off some Muck Fizzou gravy train.

Not so.

There's gravy all right. (According to the appraiser's office, Sinks lives in an Alvamar Golf Course home valued at $1.3 million.) But Sinks does not own the trademark for Muck Fizzou.

He came up with the phrase in 1982 when he heard an Oklahoma fan say "Tuck Fexas." Sinks ran several ideas through his head - Kuck Fansas State - but then the Missouri-inspired phrase just "rolled off the tongue."

Sinks applied for a trademark but was denied. Trademark law doesn't allow the branding of a nonsense word derived from profanity, Sinks says.

"Anyone can print that, and I guarantee you that almost everyone has," Sinks said.

The Journal-World confirmed that some KU-licensed retailers still advertise Muck Fizzou merchandise.

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Carrie Sinks had to know from the beginning what she was getting herself into. From the day that Larry proposed to her, it was clear that Sinks would give anything a try.

In 1994, Sinks was serving as an extra on the set of the ABC hit show "NYPD Blue." It was a gig that he landed after meeting a producer of the show at the Super Bowl party of Dick Schaap, the late television sports commentator who became good friends with Sinks after a 1988 story on national championship T-shirts.

While on the set of "NYPD Blue," Sinks convinced the show's star - Dennis Franz - to help him propose to Carrie. Franz warmed up to Carrie all day, and at the end of the shoot made a dramatic marriage proposal - complete with fake ring - to Carrie. That's when Sinks stepped in and made his proposal.

The tale provides a good snapshot of how Sinks lives his life.

"His little saying is 'I'm not afraid,'" Carrie said. "And he's not."

Former Lawrence building inspector Gene Shaughnessy was on that trip, too, also serving as an extra. The two men are friends.

"Larry is a go-for-the-gold type of guy," Shaughnessy said.

That's why it didn't come as too much of a surprise to Shaughnessy that Sinks became involved in such a high-stakes brouhaha.

"I think you can say that he likes to push the envelope, so to speak," Shaughnessy said.

Sinks, though, says he didn't push the envelope past any lines. He said he has standards that he won't cross. Those include no shirts about race, homosexuality and nothing that involves disabilities.

And despite admitting that he has a risk-taking personality, he insists that his T-shirt business isn't about filling some inner need for excitement that once had him pursue a career as a race car driver.

Instead, he says it is just about feeding his family, which includes a 12-year-old son and a 9-year old daughter.

And, yes, there's a little bit of pride involved, too.

"To me, this is freedom of speech," Sinks said. "Lew Perkins is not God, he's not president of the United States. He's not the law. He can't tell you what you can and can't do."

Comments

CarterFaucheaux 6 years, 1 month ago

I like what Lew has done for the most part, but I don't think his attack on Sinks was warranted. I'm not much of a fan of the Athletic Department as the morality police. It's kind of hard to take them seriously when they scold local fans and businesses for "inappropriate language" while the football coach screams obscenities up and down the sideline.

BigPrune 6 years, 1 month ago

Is this the same guy that rides around town on a moped?

hawkman8950 6 years, 1 month ago

That crazy "Fortune 500" Perkins has admittedly done his job, but he is much like everyone else in his position, it's all about the money. By the way I don't think a god, if Lew believes he is one should have a nose that big with something that looks like a cauliflower growth on it as well. Love your shirts Joe College maybe a new phrase should be in order about Perkins and inspired by the Muck Fizzou shirt. Puck Ferkins anyone?!

persevering_gal 6 years, 1 month ago

Uh oh! "Kansas" has been printed on a t-shirt in that photo!!!I don't know what the deal is with these two guys, but I think we just need to move on. I am a student, and I do find a lot of the shirts distasteful as well. However, I'm not sure why other businesses in this town aren't getting in trouble for using the Jayhawk logo and name. Maybe they have a license? We have the Jayhawk Motel, Jayhawk Dental, Jayhawk Carwash, etc.

gl0ck0wn3r 6 years, 1 month ago

How about "Our AD can eat your AD" and include an... artist rendition (so to speak)... of Lew enjoying a cigar. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right?

mom_of_three 6 years, 1 month ago

Isn't part of Lew's job to make the University athletics more profitable? And that may entail going after a guy who is infringing on the trademark (plus producing embarrassing t-shirts). I have found one or two of the sayings on the shirts funny (such as Kansas is the birthplace of North Carolina basketball), but the majority of them seem to be in poor taste. But then again, isn't that what students like (see students who do dumb chant). Sinks is probably in the middle of them, doing it too.

FMT6488 6 years, 1 month ago

The very fact that other retail vendors/ services are allowed to use the term "Jayhawk" (and others), sell shirts/ items hat Sinks is no longer allowed(because of image issues?!?) to sell gives me cause to doubt about Perkins' intents in this whole matter. Also the very fact that someone would actually take one those T-shirts seriously is (I would hope, anyway) ludicrous. A large problem with people(and governments) in the world now is that too many take things WAY too seriously. If people could learn to laugh or chuckle at the things that do not truely hurt them, the world could be a much more pleasant place to exist.

classclown 6 years, 1 month ago

Maybe he should print some t shirts that say "Rip his (expletive) head off! ". Students can wear those in the stands. Maybe under a jacket or something and stand up and open their jackets during each kickoff. I'm sure the typical KU student would be all over that.

babyj10 6 years, 1 month ago

To those concerned about the businesses in town with "Jayhawk" in their name; the reason this is not an infringement is because the date in which their business started/incorporated, it was not an infringement, and therefore still is not an infringement. I think that the University is in the right here. I see the other side, but it doesn't hold a very strong argument. There are some shirts that are just fine (ones that tout Lawrence, make fun of Missouri, etc), but others definitely infringe on the University. Another way to look at this is that it is not only hurting KU, this is also impacting other local shops that sell KU t-shirts. All of these other stores are following the rules and their business is hurting because a store decided to not follow the rules. The reason JC's shirts are cheaper is because they don't pay royalties. So students are going to flock to the store with the cheaper shirts leaving honest businesses out in the cold. These small shops do not have the authority (or the funds) to bring a lawsuit as it's not their trademark, so I believe it's a good thing that KU has brought the suit not only to protect their trademark, but also to help numerous other local businesses. Another point, I find it wrong that JC is using amateur athletes' personas for a profit when the university and other licensed sellers are not able to. Shirts like "Todd is God (w/ a #5)" and "Cole 45" shirts are using the athlete's names for profit. KU cannot even put a last name on the back of a jersey, video games cannot use the names of college players, and yet JC thinks they're above the NCAA's rules. I don't know who would have to sue to stop this (the athlete?, the NCAA?), but I believe that is also very wrong. Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 6 years, 1 month ago

Hmm... what classclown said... time to recover some court costs...consider this my advance order.

moveforward 6 years, 1 month ago

Larry's shirt may be distasteful... but it does not infringe on any intellectual property rights of the university. This is very heavy handed of Lew... he really needs to let this one go. Surely Larry would benefit from some diplomacy here... but why should he need it, he is clearly in the right.

weeslicket 6 years, 1 month ago

"JC thinks they're above the NCAA's rules"question: exactly whom elected the persons of the NCAA to make rules in the first place?

zzgoeb 6 years, 1 month ago

Gee, I'm pretty sure there's enough KU brand money to go around! After the Williams fund people through out the long-time seat holders...and have you checked prices on "official" KU merchandise...give me a break! As for Larry, he might try a different approach than in your face. What is most interesting is the U belongs to ALL Kansas citizens and taxpayers, so shouldn't the copyright? I believe that if Lew wants more money, we need a resident/non-resident policy here. If you are a resident of the state, tickets, licensing, etc are at a reasonable price. If you are from out of state, or out of county, you pay more.

kujayhawk7476 6 years, 1 month ago

Some of y'all need to go buy some cheese to go with your "whine"! This guy voilated the licensing requirements and needed to pay fees just like any other vendor. Instead, he wants us to feel sorry for him. I'm sure Mr. Obama and his henchmen will make sure Joe College get something from the share the wealth policies.Lew Perkins is the most effective director of athletics this university has ever seen. I suggest instead of whining and complaining you help the university.

wysiwyg69 6 years, 1 month ago

hey Larry, I bet the chances you send your kids to [lew u] are pretty slim.

gl0ck0wn3r 6 years, 1 month ago

"Shirts like "Todd is God (w/ a #5)" and "Cole 45" shirts are using the athlete's names for profit. KU cannot even put a last name on the back of a jersey, video games cannot use the names of college players, and yet JC thinks they're above the NCAA's rules."Perhaps you ought to spend more time actually reading NCAA rules instead of writing about them. JC is above the NCAA because it is not governed by NCAA rules unless it is acting as an agent of the university. Thus the NCAA monopoly on exploiting student-athletes through member institutions like KU is secure.

Phillbert 6 years, 1 month ago

And this is news how?Other than learning that Sinks lives in a $1.3 million house at Alvamar and visits the Playboy Mansion (so much for his "little guy vs. Goliath" image) there is nothing remotely newsworthy in what amounts to a free 1,500 word front-page advertisement from the LJW.

Gina Bailey-Carbaugh 6 years, 1 month ago

Sour grapes, Larry. Scum always floats to the top. I think good ole Lar will be just fine.

weeslicket 6 years, 1 month ago

ku athletics = greedcount me in as not a fan of lew perkins.the only ku basketball game i didn't get to watch last year-- vs. missouri, because lew sold it to espn(F)u.wanted to watch tonight's game... but not so fast.it's on espn(F)u also.so are 5 other games.lew doesn't give a damn about the fan base or the community.what a greedy jerk.

quik 6 years, 1 month ago

"Sinks - 45 and a native of East Lawrence"Why would the reporter write East Lawrence in this case? It makes you think that Sinks is trying to play the poor disadvantaged East Lawrence boy up against Lew, the rich outsider. That's a bunch of B.S. Although, I believe that Sinks is in the right legally with the shirts, he and Lew are both shameless opportunists and deserve no sympathy. Just go away Larry.

babyj10 6 years, 1 month ago

"12.5.2.2 Use of a Student-Athlete's Name or Picture without Knowledge or Permission.If a student-athlete's name or picture appears on commercial items (e.g., T-shirts, sweatshirts, serving trays, playing cards, posters) or is used to promote a commercial product sold by an individual or agency without the student-athlete's knowledge or permission, the student-athlete (or the institution acting on behalf of the student-athlete) is required to take steps to stop such an activity in order to retain his or her eligibility for intercollegiate athletics. Such steps are not required in cases in which a student-athlete's photograph is sold by an individual or agency (e.g., private photographer, news agency) for private use. (Revised: 1/11/97, 5/12/05)"Straight from the NCAA Bylaws. So I'm guessing they should send a cease and desist? I don't know how effective that would be, but it technically effects their eligibility. Do you really believe that JC should profit off their names when they themselves cannot even profit off their names? Because that's the result. By not putting names on jerseys and shirts, the University and licensed retailers are technically not profiting off of the student-athletes names... not the way that JC is. I also don't think that KU and other universities are exploiting these student athletes. The ones you would say are "exploited" are all on full scholarship and getting a free education. Your argument - "But they're not going to use that education as professional athletes... etc, etc." However, additional to the "worthless" education, they're also getting a showcase for the professional leagues. If they don't go to college, it's much harder to make it to the pros. In college they hone their skills, build body strength, and prepare their future (all for free, btw). So, I wouldn't call that exploitation of the athletes when it's actually helping their future. As for the ones who aren't going to make it in the pros? Free education. A chance to get a degree and excel in an area they may have had the chance or not considered before. By saying what I said I wasn't stating as fact that they were governed by the NCAA. The point I was trying to make is that it's wrong to profit off amateur athletes' names and he intentionally continues to do so. Sinks is morally in the wrong.

KABOONIS 6 years, 1 month ago

Not worthy of front page news? Since when is a question of free speech not worthy? This is a guy who has made his way by using his wits...something wrong with that? Is "Todd" really copyright protected by the way? And "Our Coach?"...holycow!....oops! Bet that's protected too, by Texas or Chicago. Man, it's a dangerous world.Press On Larry! I'll send more ink if you need it.

BIGBEAR 6 years, 1 month ago

babyj10 said "The point I was trying to make is that it's wrong to profit off amateur athletes' names"Well shut down the university! it has been profiting off of student athletes for years. looks like they own the NCAA alot of money... lets sue KU for selling tickets to watch student athletes!! Shouldnt the games be free?BTW how many points did Lew score in the national championship game? how many sacks did he have in the orange bowl?Why the hell does he have the Rings?

babyj10 6 years, 1 month ago

Did you not read everything else I wrote? Just because you skip to the end, doesn't mean you get the whole story.KU Athletics makes money in order to . . . put it back into the athletic department and create the best atmosphere and amenities for the student-athletes. KU provides for the athletes, gives them a free education, provides for them a stage in which they can showcase their skills for the professional leagues. What does Joe College provide to the athletes? Nothing. Just a "thanks for being awesome so I can put your name on a shirt and use your image for profit." And without Lew, I don't believe there would even be a national championship or an orange bowl to celebrate this year. He has rings because he earned them. As do the players... and guess what... they got them too.

thestinger66 6 years ago

babyj10, I believe you are a bit wrong about without Lew there would have been no orange bowl or ncaa championship.Who coached/recruited the football players that won the Orange Bowl? Mark Mangino. Who hired Mark Mangino? Former AD Al Bohl. Who coached/recruited the basketball players that won the national championship? Bill Self. Who hired Bill Self? Interim AD Drew Jennings and KU Chancellor Robert Hemmenway. Lew had nothing to do with those hires. His only coaching hire? Bonnie Hendrickson. She has one NIT appearance. Not looking like a solid hire.....

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