Published October 26, 2009
A blue, cross-like design emblazoned on T-shirts at Penn State University has some critics seeing red.
The shirts — intended to foster school spirit — sport a vertical blue line down the center with the words "Penn State White Out" emblazoned across the chest, forming a design that some say resembles a cross. The back of the shirt depicts the same blue line obscured by the words, "Don't be intimated … It's just me and 110,000 of my friends." Roughly 30,000 of the shirts have been sold.
Penn State says it has received six complaints about the shirt, including one from the Anti-Defamation League's Philadelphia branch, from people who say it connotes a Christian cross. The logo design also has become the focus of controversy in the student newspaper, "The Daily Collegian," which has received several letters to the editor on both sides of the issue.
Michal Berns, a junior majoring in media law and policy, said she refused to buy the $15 shirt because of its religious connotations.
"At first glance, you don't necessarily think that's what it looks like, but when you look at it more, it does look like a cross," Berns told Foxnews.com. "That's the reason I didn't purchase it."
Berns said students can purchase the shirts when they buy season tickets for the university's nationally ranked football program or during the football season at the campus bookstore and other stores. The shirts are typically worn at Penn State's annual "White Out" game, at which a crowd of 100,000 screaming Nittany Lions fans creates a virtual sea of white at Beaver Stadium.
While Berns acknowledged the shirt's single blue stripe resembles the stripe on the team's football helmet, she and others at the university's Hillel Jewish organization plan to show their school pride in other ways.
"There always has to be some sort of separation," said Berns, referring to the state-funded school and religious affiliation. "Me personally, I'm not going to buy the shirts and I know others at [Penn State Hillel] who won't, either."
Bill Mahon, vice president for university relations, said six people have contacted Penn State to voice their objections to the shirt's design.
"Six complaints is not a controversy," Mahon wrote Foxnews.com. "Students submit shirt designs to the student paper each year. Students then vote for their favorite design and they are sold in the campus bookstore."
Mahon said the design was based on the single blue stripe on the football team's helmets and will not be pulled from store shelves as some have asked. "The shirts have sold out and no changes are planned," he said.
Stephanie Bennis, a senior at the school, said she created the shirt's design in March with fellow public relations major Emily Sabolsky, and in no way did they intend to create religious overtones. Like Mahon, she said the single blue stripe is a nod to the university's football program.
"That was the entire idea," she said. "And all we thought was normally wording goes right across the chest. That's truly the reason why we did it."
Bennis said she was "very shocked" when she learned the university had received complaints about the design.
"It's just sad to see that in this day and age, the most offensive thing on a shirt can be what people see as a religious symbol," she said.
"Are we going to ban lowercase t's in the alphabet? Where do you draw the line?"
Barry Morrison, regional director of the Eastern Pennsylvania-Delaware region of the Anti-Defamation League, said the organization contacted Penn State officials last month after receiving a complaint regarding the shirt.
Morrison said the similarity to a cross appeared to "inadvertent and unintentional," but he acknowledged that some could take exception.
"This is not intended to be a cross," he said. "But some people clearly saw this connection and decided to complain about it."
Other students contacted by Foxnews.com said if there is a hidden religious message in the shirts, they haven't seen it.
"It's a little blown out of proportion," senior John Shoemaker said. "I kind of see where they're coming from, but I don't think it was designed as a religious statement."
Shoemaker, who purchased one of the shirts for $15 to wear at Penn State's loss to Iowa last month, said they're "relatively common" on the State College, Pa., campus.
Nick Mangus, a senior majoring in East Asian studies, described the controversy as "ridiculous" and said images of crosses can be seen virtually anywhere, even in "tiles on the floor."
"Honestly, I think it's basically people just trying to stir up controversy over something that's ridiculous," Mangus said. "If you don't want to buy it, don't buy it. It's that simple. You don't have to try and force everyone else to change their ways because you think it's offensive."