Texas A&M Sues NFL's Colts for Using Trademarked "12th Man"

Kyle Field at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Kyle Field at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with more details from the lawsuit. 

Texas A&M University sued the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday in an effort to stop the National Football League team from using the phrase “12th man” to describe its fans.

A&M has called itself the “Home of the 12th Man” for decades as an homage to its football-obsessed fans who, according to Aggie lore, represent an additional player to complement the 11 already on the field. The university says it has owned the trademark to the phrase since 1990. 

“We bear no ill will toward the Indianapolis Colts,” said A&M System Chancellor John Sharp. “We simply want them to respect our trademark rights. Our actions are consistent with our previous trademark enforcement efforts in this regard.”

The Colts didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.


News of the lawsuit immediately brought online mockery and scorn on social media from football fans, many of whom consider "12th man" a generic way to describe teams' fan bases. But A&M claims ownership of the phrase and says its tradition of using the descriptor dates back to 1922. 

That year, the A&M team suffered a rash of injuries in a game against Center College, leading student E. King Gill to come down from the bleachers and stand by the bench in case he was needed, according to school lore. A&M students now stand throughout every game in what they say is a symbolic gesture to indicate their willingness to help the team. A statue of Gill has stood prominently on campus for years. 

Lately, A&M has aggressively defended its trademark. The school sued the Seattle Seahawks when that NFL team began describing its fans with the phrase during its run to the 2006 Super Bowl. After negotiations, the Seahawks signed a licensing deal with the university. A&M received a one-time payment of $100,000, plus annual payments of $5,000. That deal reportedly expires next year.

According to the lawsuit against the Colts, the team placed a "12th man mark" inside its stadium in 2006. A&M sent a cease-and-desist letter, and the Colts agreed not to use the mark on any goods or services, according to the lawsuit. A&M says in the suit that the Colts also said that they wouldn't use the 12th man mark anywhere outside the stadium.

A&M said it noticed the Colts using the "12th man" phrase again in 2012. The university sent the team a letter but didn't receive a response.

Then in July 2015, the university noticed the Colts using the phrase in a marketing e-mail. The Colts were also selling "12th man blankets" on their website.

In its suit, A&M doesn't ask for a specific dollar amount but requests that a judge ban the Colts from using the university's trademark.

“We would prefer not to file lawsuits to protect our trademarks,” said A&M President Michael Young. “However, when our intellectual property, especially the 12th Man mark, which is so important to our students and former students, is used without our permission after repeated attempts to engage on the matter, we are left with no choice.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.


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