As I was walking down Massachusetts Street the other day on my way to lunch with a friend, I passed what once was the Joe College T-shirt store. The shirts are gone but the sign saying that KU had not endorsed or licensed any of the shirts once sold there remained as a sad reminder of the battle between Kansas Athletics and a small Lawrence business owner.
Lawrence is a small town and it is dominated by two large institutions: Lawrence-Memorial Hospital and Kansas University. When I first moved to Lawrence in 1994 I was impressed at how the town and its two major employers worked so well together. LMH’s goal has always been to provide Lawrence and the surrounding communities with the highest level of medical care possible. KU and Lawrence have, for a very long time, also worked well together, or at least did until KU Athletics became a big business.
The fact of the matter is that KU Athletics is not an educational entity and, whatever its tax status, it certainly shouldn’t be considered a not-for-profit entity. Instead, it is a very successful sports franchise that generates large sums of money, mainly for itself. Its leadership is paid vast sums and receives significant non-cash benefits, in many cases, far more than do the CEOs of private corporations in these days of increased scrutiny of executive pay.
The relationship between KU Athletics and the people of Lawrence and Douglas County has become strained over the past several years. First, athletics officials instigated the wildly unpopular “points” system which disenfranchised many fans who had been loyal ticket holders through the “bad” years of KU sports. The explanation, of course, was that KU Athletics had to make money.
Then came the decision to move the KU-Missouri football game to Kansas City, a move which cost Lawrence merchants large sums of money. Coming at the beginning of what is now being called the Great Recession, such a decision was certainly not a friendly one to the town or its business community. But again, the explanation was the need for more profit.
Now we have all witnessed the epic battle of Kansas Athletics against Joe College; a massive and rich organization with seemingly unlimited resources (I define “unlimited” as being the case when not only employees but their spouses are provided free cars for their use) took on a small Lawrence business. To be fair, Joe College was found by a jury to have violated KU trademarks on several shirts it sold. But virtually no one who has followed the case believes that the jury’s verdict was anything other than bizarre in its findings.
While the damage award was high, over $100,000, I suspect that this would not, in itself, have forced the business to close. The killing blow to Joe College was the judge’s award of more than $600,000 in lawyers’ fees to KU. So the bottom line was that by spending massive amounts of money on bringing the case, far more than a small Lawrence business owner could afford, Kansas Athletics killed a local business.
While I am perfectly comfortable in saying that KU and Kansas Athletics have a right to protect their intellectual property and trademarks, I think that the exercise of rights should be tempered by reason and by neighborliness. The destruction of Joe College was neither reasonable nor neighborly. Indeed, it was quite the reverse. It was an example of bullying and excessive demands. The result is that Lawrence has lost another business and that Kansas Athletics has made it very clear that being a good neighbor is not high on its priority list. One can only wonder what comes next.