Schools crack down on offensive T-shirts

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Wearing an inappropriate T-shirt to Saturday’s game against St. John’s could get you kicked out of the stadium. Producing and selling the T-shirts could put a black mark on your disciplinary record.

Such actions are part of a plan by administrators at St. Thomas, St. Ben’s and St. John’s to eliminate offensive T-shirts from the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry. The administrators also hope to promote good sportsmanship.

“We’re all in agreement that we don’t want students going into the game, wearing shirts that are offensive,” said Karen Lange, St. Thomas dean of students. “We really don’t want the students to wear them.”

Disciplinary action for involved individuals

In addition to pairing with St. John’s to ban the shirts from the game, St. Thomas threatened disciplinary action for selling inappropriate T-shirts. According to the St. Thomas Student Handbook, “Students are subject to disciplinary sanctions for conduct which occurs on or off campus when that conduct is detrimental or disruptive to the purposes and/or goals of the university.”

<p>STAR is handing out 600 Tommie T-shirts at tonight's volleyball game.</p>
STAR is handing out 600 Tommie T-shirts at tonight's volleyball game. (Mary Kenkel/TommieMedia)

Selling inappropriate T-shirts could be documented on a student’s disciplinary records, which are often sought by employers after the student graduates, Lange said.

“We get asked all the time from med schools and law schools [to see the records],” she said.

Disciplinary records are kept for seven years after graduation. Alumni have to grant permission to release the records. But Lange said there could be serious consequences for what is recorded while studying as an undergraduate.

“There are bigger ramifications beyond your time at St. Thomas,” Lange said.

First year of official complaints before game

In previous years, St. Thomas administrators heard about offensive T-shirts after the Tommie-Johnnie games.

This year, Lange said they received complaints from students and parents before the game, prompting the administration to talk to the students involved in T-shirt sales.

“We’re not out there looking for it,” she said. “If we get a complaint, we take action. And this year, we did. We got complaints from students and we got complaints from parents.”

The football games are supposed to be a family-friendly event, Lange said, and the T-shirts affect that overall tone.

“[People] bring their children to the games,” she said. “It’s really hard to have a family atmosphere when people are wearing shirts like that. It’s just not appropriate for children.”

T-shirts are offensive to “the human dignity” and women

The offensiveness of the T-shirts has been discussed around the St. Thomas campus, including at 11 a.m. Mass Sunday and at the annual “Can I Kiss You?” event.

“Some of these T-shirts are offensive to the human dignity,” Lange said. “They’re offensive to women. They go after gender and sexual orientation.”

And while Tommie-Johnnie T-shirts have been around for a while, Lange said they are getting progressively worse.

“The last couple years, they have really crossed the line,” she said. “It’s a poor reflection on St. Thomas for the students to wear those shirts.”

One shirt for sale this year compares women from St. Ben’s to roller coasters.

“We have the biggest issue towards the Bennies,” said Kevin Abbas, a student senator at St. John’s.  “They’re not involved in the game. They’re just an easy target.”

Appropriate vs. inappropriate

Appropriate, student-created T-shirts aren’t banned from the game, but Lange said they need to be clean.

“I think if students make clever T-shirts that are appropriate, that’s fine,” she said. “But it’s the inappropriate and offensive ones that we don’t think students should be selling or wearing.”

Also, students aren’t allowed to use St. Thomas property in any way to promote selling or buying of the T-shirts. This includes using St. Thomas e-mail addresses.

“Each situation is individual,” said Rachel Harris, St. Thomas interim associate dean of students. “It depends on the particular complaint, the particular T-shirt, the particular situation. … But they can’t use any St. Thomas property.”

Students band together at St. John’s and St. Ben’s

More than 500 students signed a petition against any inappropriate T-shirt at St. John’s and St. Ben’s.

“We’re really hoping to get the awareness out there,” Abbas said. “If you don’t agree with the T-shirts, there are other people who also don’t agree with them.”

And St. John’s and St. Ben’s students responded positively, Abbas said.

“The reaction overall was very understanding,” he said. “There was a lot of willingness to sign, especially on the Bennie side, because they’ve been the target of a lot of the T-shirts, even though they don’t have anything to do with the game.”

Along with collecting signatures, an eight-person task force organized by the St. John’s and St. Ben’s student senate also created a poster campaign to promote good sportsmanship at the Tommie-Johnnie game. The posters feature campus leaders and are hung throughout both campuses.

The group also will be handing out “homer hankies” to anyone wearing a St. John’s-sponsored T-shirt to the game.

“Wear a good T-shirt, get a hankie,” Abbas said. “We are encouraging positive sportsmanship. There will be a a lot of alumni and a lot of little kids at the game. They don’t need to be seeing T-shirts like that. It gives all of our schools a bad name.”

At St. Thomas, the Undergraduate Student Government decided not to hand out T-shirts for this year’s game.

Mary Kenkel can be reached at

5 Replies to “Schools crack down on offensive T-shirts”

  1. I’m really glad something is finally being done about this. I’m all for freedom of speech and clever shots at the other team, but a lot of these shirts cross the line. Making fun of the other team is all in good fun, but the shirts aren’t even mocking St. John’s or St. Ben’s, they just insult members of our own community who are already marginalized.
    We’re all college educated, we should at least be able to come up with something funny that doesn’t attack women and the lgbt community.

  2. I am a mother of a freshman student at UST. I am a Bennie.
    I am a mother of three fine individuals: 25, 22, 18. Our daughter (22) is completely vulnerable as a special needs young lady. My father was a SJPrep grad, a SJU grad & devoted 40+ years of service to St. Johns’ Abbey/University in his work at the Liturgical Press. He was the original
    co-creator of the tuition remission program at SJU/CSB, which helped countless students and families receive free tuition at quality Catholic institutions; UST, is one of those places. My father wanted to ensure the Catholic Church he loved so dearly; acted in a manner that was morally responsible, who held leaders acccountable for their actions; good or bad, acting wisely & working skillfully to advance the common good. My father was a great man. Quite frankly, my Dad, would be appalled at the offensive UST/SJU Homecoming tshirts being circulated.
    I do hope the individuals who created/distributed the inappropriate UST Homecoming tshirts, spend time with individuals who are recovering from inappropriate sexual traumas/damage. The proceeds of the tshirt sales should be donated to benefit one of the many organizations who work tirelessly to educate & eliminate ignorant & disrespectful behaviors.
    UST students are better than the…

  3. I love a good school rivalry. They’re healthy. They bring out a student’s natural patriotism for the institution that raised him, and that is both very human and very good. Back in high school, my administrators didn’t “get” that, and they were always trying to crack down on us for doing offensive things like “cheering for our guys” or “booing bad calls by the ref.” But, at the same time, the idea of suggesting that a bunch of fine upstanding Catholic women at an opposing school were harlots was unthinkable to my classmates and me.

    Clearly, the situation is different here, and I applaud UST administration for walking the delicate line between encouraging a good football rivalry and permitting that rivalry to turn into something ugly and inhuman. I hope our students will represent us well at Tommie/Johnnie.

  4. Kudos to students for taking some sort of a stand against these kinds of things.  Let us also remember, however, that this is not uniquely a St. Thomas problem…SJU makes plenty of the same sorts of inappropriate shirts.

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