LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Civil War ended more than a century ago, but it is being fought again this week on a new battleground — the fronts and backs of T-shirts.
Ugly slogans are defining the interstate hostility between MU and KU in advance of Saturday’s game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
For Missouri fans, a shirt recalling the razing of Lawrence in 1863 has become a popular item on blogs and message boards. It shows William Quantrill and his Bushwhackers paired with the word “Scoreboard.”
In response, ginned up KU supporters fashioned a shirt showing abolitionist John Brown, who got his start in “Bleeding Kansas,” with the words, “Kansas: Protecting America from Missouri since 1854.”
With both teams having their best seasons in decades and a crucial game on the line, outsiders are getting a quick lesson in the bitter history of the rivalry.
The shirts are tied to a period of fury and hatred from before the Civil War.
In Kansas, Quantrill’s raiders from Missouri raped and murdered hundreds in Lawrence, the abolitionist capital.
At about the same time, Brown was plundering farms and families in pro-slavery Missouri.
Now, nearly 150 years later, the conflict is spilling into fan’s wardrobes.
To those uninitiated in the rivalry, such items might appear as a sick joke for commerical profit. But fans and merchants on both sides of the Border Showdown are lining up to trade in the shirts.
“We’ve gotten calls all week from people asking if we’re selling them,” said Steve Dillard, co-owner of Tiger Spirit in Columbia. “It’s not a licensed item, so I have to tell them I don’t carry it.”
Both MU and KU supporters shrug off any moral outrage. They find nothing wrong with showing utter contempt for the enemy; in fact, some find it humorous.
“Everyone sees it as a joke,” said KU student Tyler Kemp as he sipped on a beer at a tailgate party before last Saturday’s game against Iowa State.
“It’s all in jest, and no one honestly believes the state of Missouri endorses slavery.”
Kemp’s attitude perhaps best summarizes how the MU and KU faithful view their relationship — once full of open hostility, but now settled into rueful disgust and annoyance.
While the past is the past, the deeds now serve as fodder for a game that will decide who has bragging rights for the next year.
At another tailgate, Chris Thell reclined in a folding chair and said he understands that some people might be appalled by such T-shirts, but that they understand MU and KU fans’ take on the matter.
“We know our history is ugly,” he said. “We don’t take pride in it, necessarily, but we know it’s there. The fact that we use it to poke fun at each other shows we’ve moved past it.”
In another way, fans also see it as an evolution of the goading used to rile up the opposition.
“To me, it’s a sign that this latest generation has a sense of humor that is deeper than it has been in the past,” said Steven Mitchell as he and his wife, Barbara, lunched with friends inside the Kansas Union on Saturday. “They are going past the whole ‘Muck Fizzou’ stuff and showing an understanding of where this rivalry came from.”
Mitchell jokingly added, “Besides, we weren’t the ones supporting slavery.”
For their part, Tigers fans take the pot shots in stride. Heck, they might have already pulled the pin on the next rhetorical grenade they want to heave on to the Kansas Turnpike.
“Let’s face it, this is going to be an epic game,” said Roger Johnson as he shopped at Tiger Spirit on Tuesday. “Hey, let’s have some fun with it and we’ll all be friends when it’s over.”
A conversation with either a Missouri fan or Kansas fan quickly reveals that a thick skin is necessary to survive the jabs thrown by each side.
“I pride myself on having a sense of humor about the whole thing,” Rob Hayword said as he looked at a photo of one of the shirts.
So, what to make of it all? Are fans really so blasé in their attitudes about dredging up incidents from the Missouri Compromise, which was devoid of compromise?
Well, not really. You see, that’s the beauty of the whole affair: the one-upmanship.
“When you’ve got a rivalry like this one, people are going to pick out whatever they can to sling at the opposition,” Hayword said.
Those selling the T-shirts, however, are not really free of legal restrictions.Dillard said shirts with extreme subject matter are not usually licensed apparel.
To prevent inappropriate use, colleges such as MU and KU must approve designs that use trademarked images. It helps ensure they get a cut of the profit from licensing fees and royalties, as well as control of content.
“Anyone can print up a T-shirt and slap a logo on the front of it,” Dillard said. “Now, whether it’s licensed or not is a different matter.”
He added that most mainstream stores don’t sell unlicensed apparel, because they fear potential lawsuits or because they don’t agree with what’s depicted on the shirt.
Then there are the renegades.
For the past two years, Joe College on Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence has taken pride in offering shirts that take the tone of rivalry up a notch.
Inside the store, there are plenty of warnings: “These shirts are not licensed by the university. If you do not understand this, please do not purchase anything in this store.”
Behind the counter, clerk Erin Andrews said the shop is only trying to give customers what they want.
“I would tell people who get upset over the content of the shirts to relax,” Andrews said. “It’s just a way to try and get on the nerves of the other side.”
That doesn’t mean she takes a completely laissez-faire view of all content. She finds the shirt picturing Lawrence aflame to be particularly galling.
“You’re venerating the act of people who supported enslaving fellow human beings,” she said.
“Yes, people from Kansas also committed violent acts but it was an effort to end a cruel and inhumane system.”
While there is some seller choice involved, both Dillard and Andrews said that what a store sells is a function of what the customer base is and the taste of the owners.
For Dillard, his market is “one where we sell (mostly) to people who have already graduated.”
Meanwhile, Andrews says Joe College is trying to offer items that “will make people have a good laugh — no matter if they’re from Missouri or Kansas.”
But as the success of both football programs reaches new heights, so too has the demand for shirts that ratchet up the level of intensity.
“We find that we’re toeing the line, but trying to keep it in good taste,” Dillard says. “A lot of the unlicensed goes over the line, and that’s not somewhere we’re willing to go.”