The old college try: Students organize fundraiser for Joe College in its fight against Kansas University

Larry Sinks, owner of Joe College, with benefit organizer Hollie Farrahi.

A customer looks through the T-shirts at Joe College.

The ongoing saga of Joe College vs. the Kansas University Athletic Department has spilled into a new decade, with no end in sight. It’s hard to believe that a legal tussle regarding inane T-shirts, waged between a downtown retailer and a higher education institution, has dragged on for this many years and with so many hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

The controversy will be reignited this week with the Joe College Jamfest, a student-organized fundraiser for the T-shirt shop on the brink of collapse due to its trademark war with KU. And it’s only the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending drama.

“I believe I received papers in May of 2006. So it’s been going on for four years now,” says a visibly weary Larry Sinks, owner of Joe College, who recalls the moment he encountered a message from KU athletic director Lew Perkins that would change his life. “I simply think Mr. Perkins didn’t like the shirts. He sent me a letter telling me to close my store, and when I didn’t close my store, I think he’s used to getting his way.”

Thus was born the very serious fight over very silly T-shirts. Joe College had been selling humorous apparel with KU and Lawrence themes – their most popular designs probably being the Mark Mangino baiting “My Coach Can Eat Your Coach” and ubiquitous “Muck Fizzou” shirts – that the university felt were infringing upon their trademarks. Although Sinks says he studiously avoided using a Jayhawk or any variation of an official KU logo, the athletic department still felt the shirts used colors and designs that sullied the university’s good name.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand how the messages that are on the back of our shirts can be part of a trademark lawsuit,” says Sinks. “I mean, ‘Friends don’t let friends go to school in Missouri’ – I don’t understand how that’s infringing on KU’s trademarks. ‘Muck Fizzou’ – I don’t understand how that infringed on KU’s trademarks. I looked up those trademarks, and they didn’t own them. It’s confusing. I’m sure there are reasons for it, but it’s just been a really tough time.”

A jury ruled in 2008 that Joe College must stop selling 53 of its more than 200 designs and pay KU $127,000 in penalties. In 2009, the judge presiding over the case ruled Sinks and company must also pay KU nearly $550,000 in legal fees. As of right now, attorneys for Joe College have filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which may not be heard until 2011. In the meantime, Joe College waits in legal limbo, unsure if it will still be in business this time next year.

“The jury unanimously found, on all six counts, that Joe College willfully infringed on KU’s marks,” says associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, arguing the lawsuit was meant to protect not only the interests of the university, but of its students. “Every unlicensed product that is purchased means that a licensed product is not purchased, and that takes scholarship money away from KU students.”

Dividing line

The incident has become a flashpoint in Lawrence, a referendum for some on the tenure of Perkins as AD. There’s a dividing line between those who think Perkins is simply protecting KU’s interests and those who think he’s persecuting a small business owner. Enter Hollie Farrahi, a KU journalism student who decided to use an advertising assignment for class as a way to raise money and awareness for Joe College during its legal battle.

“Honestly, I like to think of Joe College as very quintessentially Lawrence, especially in terms of the college scene,” says Farrahi, whose benefit concert tonight at The Granada will raise funds for Sinks. “When we were putting together the campaign, we really wanted to target college students because we obviously know that demographic pretty well. We also like the controversy surrounding it. We thought it would be interesting to give the company a positive spin and a positive voice in the community.”

For his part, Sinks was glad to have any sliver of good news.

“Hollie informed me they want to bring attention to what has happened here and try to bring about the freedom of speech where you can print whatever you want on a T-shirt as long as you’re not using their actual marks,” Sinks says. “She told me there was a group of students on campus that really believe what I’m doing is OK. The students are behind me.”

With the Joe College Jamfest, featuring a slate of local bands, Farrahi hopes she can tap into the pro-Joe contingent in Lawrence who believe the university, and particularly Perkins, has been heavy-handed in this dispute.

“I think it’s almost a personal attack is what I’d call it,” Farrahi says. “There are a lot of details that seem kind of fuzzy to me. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, it’s not fair.’ I don’t know 100 percent all of the details, but — it seems a lot of it doesn’t add up.”

Sinks, unsurprisingly, is of the same mind.

“Lew Perkins and I had some dialogue there for a while — his answer was that it’s out of his hands and it’s in the hands of the lawyers right now,” Sinks says. “I know he’s been driving it, but in my conversations I’ve had with Lew, he’s said it’s business and nothing personal. Yet they sued me personally. It’s affecting my relationship with my wife and it’s been hard on my children. It’s very personal. I think they’re doing everything in their power to close me down. One of my offers to them was to close the store to settle this thing and make it go away. They haven’t answered those offers. Their offer was, ‘We want to know every dime that you have.'”

Ready for an end

Despite Sinks’ assertions, the athletic department insists it never sought a war of legal attrition and that its aim is not to drive Joe College out of business.

“This lawsuit is not something we wanted to happen,” Marchiony says. “Larry Sinks had ample opportunity to stop being a willful infringer, but he made the very conscious decision to continue to be a willful infringer, and the jury said so. Our only goal is to have Larry Sinks stop infringing on KU’s marks. He can sell T-shirts. He’s very, very capable of selling T-shirts that do not willfully infringe on KU’s marks.”

Farrahi, who insists the fundraiser is not an anti-Perkins-palooza but purely a means to generate positive publicity for Joe College, has nonetheless caught the attention of the athletic department. “I got an e-mail from them. They weren’t happy with it, basically. I had some errors in the press release in terms of wording about legal fees versus damages,” recalls Farrahi, describing the tone of the e-mail as, “Very rude. It was condescending.”

While Sinks is grateful for the support from Farrahi and the community, in the end he just wants this whole affair to go away.

“If you only knew how many people come up to me and say, ‘We’re proud for what you’ve stood up for,'” says Sinks with obvious emotion in his voice. “But if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t even be here. It’s not worth what I had to go through with my wife and my kids. The tears at night from my wife several times, some things my kids have been told at school – it’s not worth it. Life’s too short.”