A T-shirt promotion by two teenage girls in Kansas who were eager to raise awareness about breast cancer, unexpectedly earned the pair a lesson in decency and trademark law.
Haley Wenthe and Jessica Sheahon, seniors at Salina Central High School, set out to raise $10,000 to fight breast cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Haley's mother had died of the disease five years ago, and Sheahon's mom recently completed chemotherapy. They started raising funds by selling bracelets, temporary tattoos and beads.
Then the girls decided to have T-shirts printed with the slogan "Save 2nd Base," a reference to the slang term for a woman's breasts. The front of the shirt shows a pair of baseballs over the chest above the slogan. The back features an image of a breast cancer awareness ribbon.
But the noble idea brought the girls double trouble, from school officials who said the T-shirts were in bad taste, and from another breast cancer awareness group, which said the T-shirt design had been taken from the group without permission.
The original second-base T-shirt appeared in 2005 at a Philadelphia breast cancer walk. It was designed by Kelly Rooney to celebrate a team of walkers participating in a 60-mile trek to raise money for breast cancer. At the time Rooney, a 42-year-old mother of five, was in the final stage of breast cancer. The T-shirt, and its edgy approach to what some consider a taboo topic, took off.
Rooney has since died, but a foundation was established to commemorate her fight against the disease. As part of that effort, Rooney's sister, Erin Dugery, and a friend, obtained a trademark for the shirt, which they market on the Web site www.save2ndbase.com. Dugery did not know how many shirts had been sold or given away but told ABC News that they are very popular.
For Haley Wenthe and Jessica Sheahon, that's where the marketing lesson came in -- the two girls never sought permission for use of the patented design, Dugery said. "They're teenage girls who meant well," said Dugery, adding that they contacted the girls to protect the "brand." "I would appreciate it if they didn't sell the shirts anymore," she said. While Dugery is not filing any lawsuit, she is talking to the girls about a relationship in which the Kelly Rooney Foundation might benefit from the shirt proceeds, Durgery said.
Ironically, Dugery may not have ever heard about the apparent trademark infringement if it weren't for the controversy the girls T-shirts caused at their school. Last Friday, they had 900 of the shirts printed and planned to sell them at a football game. A the high school vice principal, himself a cancer survivor and a supporter the girls' awareness campaign, told them the design went too far.
"The T-shirt in question contains a sexual innuendo that is inappropriate for school," Salina principal Stan Vaughn told ABC News. "From our standpoint, it's really that simple." Vaughn praised the girls' gumption and celebrated the success of their campaign. He also guessed that a majority of his students disagreed with the school's ban "because they're for a good cause." But he was not backing down on the decision, which he said touched off a stream of e-mails. And the story landed the girls and their T-shirts in the local newspaper, the Salina Journal.
The girls told the Journal that the ban actually boosted T-shirt sales and claimed they weren't trying to be overly sexual in the design, which they acknowledged may not be for everyone. "We're not trying to be dirty about it, but to have some humor instead of a T-shirt saying how many people died from cancer last year," Wenthe told the paper. "We thought if you want to educate students, you have to do it in a way that reaches them."
Erin Dugery resisted casting judgment on the school's ban but echoed Wenthe's sentiment about raising awareness -- assuming you do it in a way you have permission to. "If this is a way for us to reach the community of Salina, Kansas," Dugery said, then "we are all good."