Notre Dame, Holtz Beat Oklahoma for ‘Champion’ Slogan Rights

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A longstanding feud over the origin of the slogan, “Play like a champion today,” reignited on Wednesday, when Play Like A Champion Today LLC (PLACT) announced a five-year partnership with Notre Dame. Two universities, Notre Dame and the University of Oklahoma, enjoy time-honored associations to the catchy mantra. But Notre Dame’s now-codified rights to it appear to be on solid legal ground.

The Indiana-based PLACT is owned by a group led by former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. Former Fighting Irish wide receiver Derrick Mayes and quarterback Rick Mirer are also investors. The company’s deal with Notre Dame contains an exclusive license for all PLACT merchandise sales. PLACT retained Athletes First and its CEO, Notre Dame and Harvard Law School alumnus Brian Murphy, to negotiate the deal.

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The origin of “Play like a champion today” is unsettled. As told by PLACT, the slogan “was made famous at Notre Dame by Coach Holtz,” who manned the sidelines there from 1986 to 1996. PLACT highlights how “Play like a champion today” appears on a sign that “sits in a stairwell between the home team locker room and the tunnel to the field of Notre Dame Stadium.” There’s also a “tradition for players to touch the sign” while headed out to the field.

Fans of the Oklahoma Sooners have a similar—but earlier—history to share. They stress, as detailed in a 2012 story published in The Oklahoman, that “Play like a champion today” goes back in Norman lore to at least the 1950s, long before Holtz showed up in South Bend.

Bud Wilkinson, the famed Sooners football coach, “put up the sign early in his OU coaching career. Maybe in 1947. No later than 1950 or 1951,” said Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. A sign for the slogan was later placed in the Switzer Center and “the words are reprinted on the mural in the tunnel that leads onto Owen Field.” Just as Fighting Irish players tap their sign, Sooners players touch their mural.

For the last four decades, the football world has ably handled two elite programs promoting cherished associations to the same sequence of five words—and the accompanying tradition of players touching those words while marching out onto the field. And yet PLACT’s announcement, as captured in a tweet by Adam Schefter, still sparked objections. Among them:

  • “Oklahoma has been using this since the 1950s….Good try Notre Dame.”

  • “So could OU challenge this and win if they wanted to? Bud Wilkinson started using that phrase in the locker room in the 1950s.”

  • “Notre Dame stealing this from Oklahoma and acting like they started it haha!”

Has PLACT or Notre Dame broken any intellectual property laws by profiting off a slogan that may have first “belonged” to another school? Almost certainly not.

“Play like a champion today” is a registered trademark of PLACT, which filed its application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2006. Sportico‘s review of the filings found the USPTO published the trademark for opposition in 2008, meaning that a USPTO examining attorney had reviewed PLACT’s registration and found it complied with applicable legal requirements. Publication also notified the public that if there were objections from businesses, schools or other parties, they had better raise them before the mark is registered.

The University of Oklahoma raised no objections. There was, however, an objection from HBI Branded Apparel Limited (Hannesbrand), which owns such marks as applications of “champion” and “it takes a little more to make a champion.” The opposition was resolved through a settlement: PLACT agreed to delete from its application registration for hats and shirts.

In 2009, the USPTO registered “Play like a champion today,” in standard character mark, to PLACT, for such goods as: mouse pads, plastic key rings, mugs, cloth flags, towels and signs. The registration has been timely renewed and remains live.

PLACT recently filed USPTO applications for expanded commercial uses of the slogan. Last October, PLACT filed an application regarding the right to have the slogan appear in a stylized font set. In May, it filed an application for “alcoholic beverages except beers” and a month later filed an application for golf towels, golf bags, golf ball markers and golf divot repair tools. The golf-themed application came three months after another company filed an application for the mark, “yo golf swing play like a champion today!”

It remains to be seen if PLACT’s new applications, like the one from 2006, will be reviewed favorably by examining attorneys and withstand possible opposition. Only then will we know if PLACT’s attorneys are champions.

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