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Those controversial Penn State NCAA shirts? Produced by a fringe company walking a fine line

By - Last modified: August 10, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Sports news sites lit up this week with images of a T-shirt available in a Penn State campus bookstore.

Kevin Horne of Penn State blog Onward State tweeted a picture of a dark blue shirt with large white letters spelling out "NCAA," but with the letter "C" replaced with the hammer and sickle.

Referencing that, the shirt bears the tagline "National Communist Athletic Association," and the back rips the NCAA's penalties on PSU.

This quickly spread to other large blogs, and it was soon being reported all over the country as fact.

How could the university create and sell a shirt like that?

It didn't.

The shirt was being sold by a private business that leases space on campus, and the shirt has no connections with the school. It was produced by Smack Apparel, a company specializing in college-related apparel that walks a fine line of violating copyrights as well as tasteful subject matter.

Smack is the most well-known company in a small industry that exists on the fringes of merchandise. Producing unlicensed goods means that you don't have to pay fees, follow standards or get approval from the university owning the designs. Usually this involves invoking a school's colors, mascots, traditions and, most popular, rivalries. Nothing will sell a shirt more than an opportunity to put down another team, because you usually just support your own.

On its website, Smack takes any and all opportunity to avoid links to any particular school, listing products by location of the school instead of the name, and disclaimers abound.

Smack is selling several PSU shirts supporting Coach Bill O'Brien or former coach Joe Paterno. The products for other schools are more edgy, with language a little too strong to include here.

Schools have taken action against Smack in the past, trying to discourage episodes like this. LSU, Ohio State, USC and Oklahoma sued Smack for use of their school colors and won.

Ohio State's complaint was over a shirt in solid scarlet, Ohio State's most identifying color, with the text "Got Seven? We Do! 7 Time National Champs." The message on the shirt was generic, but it was obviously connected to Ohio State by anyone who would buy it.

The court awarded damages to the schools, and that's what they were really after – Smack's financial gain. Licensed university shirts sell for $15 and up, with the university getting a decent cut.

Shirts from producers such as Smack are sometimes sold alongside licensed shirts, but the unlicensed ones are often cheaper, more attractive to fans and pay nothing to the university. I've seen these shirts sold by individuals roaming tailgating parking, usually around $10.

Cash only, of course.

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