The legendary Spinal Tap guitarist David St. Hubbins once said the difference between stupid and clever is a fine line. Sometimes it's as thin as a thread. But sometimes it's as wide as a chasm.
This week, news broke of an astoundingly stupid pro-Ohio State T-shirt making its way around Columbus using the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal as a way to take a bank-shot jab at Michigan. "I'd rather shower at Penn State," the shirt read, "than cheer for the Wolverines."
Ha! Get it? Because molestation is a funny joke. Go Bucks! O-H-I-O!
All right, it's not like this is in any way sanctioned or approved by the university. To be fair, shirts with the exact same punchline have shown up at both Iowa and LSU, and we'd imagine that those universities (and the vast majority of their fans) are every bit as disgusted and embarrassed by their T-shirts. (LSU has the most to hang its head about; its T-shirt featured the grammatical error of "then" rather than "than," seemingly turning showering and rooting for a rival into items on a to-do list.)
This isn't a referendum on what is and isn't funny. There's nothing that can't be made funny – there are even a few funny jokes about, say, 9/11 – but oh, does it take a deft comedian to pull off humor in the face of tragedy. And a comedian with that kind of skill isn't printing up t-shirts and selling them by hand, cash-only, to tailgaters at Ohio State football games.
No, this is a case of How Freaking Stupid Can You Be? Look, college students' very existence is a four-year stumble from one bad decision to the next, with the hope that somewhere along the way you clean yourself up enough that you can graduate. At that point, you'll realize that making, or even buying, a shirt that clumsily yokes fandom to child rape is a phenomenally stupid idea.
"Sadly, that would be an item that people would want," says Mark Cracraft, textbook manager at Buckeye Books, a Columbus store selling Ohio State merchandise. "It's not something we or any other reputable store would carry."
Instant current-events T-shirts can be a profitable little side business; anybody with access to a screen printer can crank out a boxful of ready-to-wear-on-Saturday T-shirts in just a couple hours.
"Each big story that's in the news, we decide on an individual basis whether it's something we want to make a T-shirt about," says Josh Sneed of LookAtMeShirts.com. "It's a gray area, what some people will find funny and some won't."
[Related: Dan Wetzel's podcast: Is Michigan overrated?]
When the allegations against Sandusky first broke, Sneed, a professional comedian, produced a "State Penn" T-shirt on which the Nittany Lion is replaced with a running shower head. "That got some people upset," he recalls. "We had some people asking why we were making money off the tragedy. Our take is that as comedians and business owners, we weren't glorifying what happened. We thought it was a clever gag that would ruffle some feathers." Sneed said that his company did not contribute any revenue from the "State Penn" shirt to charitable causes, but has done so for other shirts.
And, for the record, when he saw the "I'd rather shower at Penn State" shirts, he wasn't surprised – "I've gotten kind of desensitized to shocking T-shirts" – but couldn't believe someone would sell it, and certainly wouldn't do so himself.
Fans with a closer connection to Ohio State have also sought to distance themselves from the shirt and its message.
"I've never been more embarrassed to be a Buckeye fan than when I saw this t-shirt," wrote BuzzFeed's Jack Moore. "On behalf of my beloved Buckeyes, allow me to apologize to the victims of the Penn State scandal as well as the university's students, who had nothing to do with it and would love to be able to move on with their lives. I do not, however, apologize to Michigan, which still sucks." (That's how you do it, folks.)
Internet comments, which generally evince all the moral standing of a litterbox, have been overwhelmingly anti-shirt at sites running the shirt's photo. And one fervent Ohio State alum, Molly Litfin, has begun a well-meaning petition "asking the officials at The NCAA, The Big Ten, and The Ohio State University to step up and be the first university to call for an immediate halt in production & destruction of these horrible, offensive shirts."
Here's the question, though: Even though the shirt is tasteless and a blight-by-proxy on the university, does Ohio State have any power to block it? Free speech and free expression and all that means someone could wear it right into Ohio Stadium, right?
Not exactly. The Supreme Court ruled way back in 1986 in Bethel School District v. Fraser that public schools have the right to regulate speech which they consider offensive; later, lower court decisions applied this rule to potentially inflammatory or offensive T-shirts. Certainly some school administrators have tested the limits of this power, like the Oklahoma school that dropped the hammer on a five-year-old for wearing a Michigan T-shirt a couple weeks back. But it's tough to argue that a T-shirt using child rape as a punch line could be in any way acceptable to the Ohio State community, and it's therefore subject to regulation.
Ohio State also has a reputation for aggressively protecting its brand. "We had a couple T-shirts that weren't risky at all," Sneed says. "They said ‘Even God Hates Michigan' in the Ohio State colors, but OSU served us with a cease-and-desist for using the scarlet and gray."
Thursday night, Ohio State issued a statement condemning the T-shirts, affirming they are not sanctioned by the university, and concluding, "It is unacceptable and appalling that someone would make light of a tragedy in this manner."
Here's the thing, though: the manufacturers of these t-shirts aren't interested in free speech theory and in all likelihood may not even care one way or another about Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten. They're in it to get a cheap laugh and make a quick buck off suckers who mistake depravity for witty social commentary.
The mindblowing irony, which only the truly oblivious could fail to grasp, is that by wearing this shirt you only make your beloved OSU look backward. And oh, if you get tagged on Facebook wearing one of these? Good luck explaining that in a job interview five years from now.
So, yes, this isn't about morality or sensitivity or any of those warm, fuzzy feelings which tend to get bulldozed over in the course of a football season. No, this is about stupidity, plain and simple. You wear (or make) this kind of shirt, you're sending a message all right, but not the one you think. We're not laughing with you, we're laughing at you.
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