Although the NCAA prevents college athletes from profiting from their athletic success, an increasing number of college football stars are preparing for future deals by filing trademarks now. Gaining legal ownership of their names, nicknames, and catch phrases paves the way for licensing deals down the road. Trademark ownership also prevents others from exploiting and capitalizing on a young player’s fame.
For example, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott recently filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register his nicknames “Zeke” and “Eze” as trademarks for merchandise. Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is also attempting to obtain trademark rights in his name as well as the phrases “Dak Attack” and “Who Dak.”
Professional players routinely trademark their names and fan phrases, and now, some universities and lawyers are encouraging college athletes to capitalize in the same way. By filing for a trademark registration, college players not only prepare for merchandising when they go pro, but also protect themselves against potential trademark poachers. Additionally, anyone can apply for a trademark, and if an athlete fails to secure legal ownership over his trademark(s), someone else might. Last year, Dak Prescott faced this issue when he discovered someone selling t-shirts with his name on them. In response, he secured a trademark and sued the t-shirt maker, who agreed to stop.
Critics argue that allowing college athletes to secure trademarks blurs the line between professional and amateur sports, and they may have a point. The line is increasingly becoming less clear, especially after a recent court ruling entitling college athletes to compensation when someone uses their likeness commercially. In the judgment, which was entered last fall, a U.S. District Judge ruled in favor of UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and 19 others who sued the NCAA, allowing college players to put money received from television contracts into a trust to be paid to them after they leave school. The NCAA has appealed the decision.
The NCAA still prevents players from receiving commercial payment from their athletic performance, but by trademarking now, college players are certainly becoming savvier about their future interests and their earning potential.