Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs founded Ball So Hard University in jest, but three months later, the joke has become a serious legal dispute.
In a recorded introduction for an early-November game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when players recite their names and alma maters for the TV cameras, Suggs said, "Sizzle. Ball So Hard University." He chose to forgo his real name and college, Arizona State University, in favor of a nickname and a fictional institution based on the refrain of a 2011 hip-hop song by Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Within hours, athletic apparel plastered with the name of the fake university started cropping up on the Internet. Those products are now at the center of a legal tug of war involving trademark issues and the potential for what Suggs' lawyer calls "damage to the commercial value of his persona."
Three days after the November game — the same day a Parkville man named Brian Bussells applied to trademark the phrase for use on some types of apparel — Suggs showed up at a news conference wearing a Ball So Hard University T-shirt, telling reporters that "there is some way you can get them … that has nothing to do with me." The shirt Suggs wore that day had come off Bussells' press, Bussells said.
A week and a half later, Suggs' company filed five trademark applications to use the slogan, and his nickname "T-Sizzle," on a variety of goods. One application is for use on apparel and appears to overlap with Bussells' earlier application.
"I think Suggs started to try to sell shirts a few weeks after he knew I was selling them — so I was a little surprised," Bussells said by email Thursday.
The applications by Suggs and Bussells are pending, and legal experts say they likely won't be taken up by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before mid-February.
"Officially licensed" Ball So Hard University clothes are available on Suggs' website. And Suggs' company, Team Sizzle Films Inc., has sent cease-and-desist letters to the handful of prior producers of Ball So Hard University products.
Bussells continues to sell Ball So Hard University sweatshirts through his website. He would not confirm whether Suggs has asked him to stop making and marketing the products.
Most of the other online sellers of Ball So Hard University products have removed their wares, fearful of legal action by a football player with deep pockets — Suggs has a six-year, $63 million contract with the Ravens — that could put them out of business.
Tony Uzupus, who runs a small, one-man screen printing operation out of his house in Catonsville, had Ball So Hard University shirts up on his website within hours of Suggs' pre-game joke, he said.
"When something hits like that, you have to take advantage of it," he said. "I immediately thought, 'Oh, this will sell.'"
Upon receiving a request Dec. 30 from Team Sizzle to stop selling the shirts, Uzupus removed the clothes from the website. For a few days, he sold only products with the letters "BSHU" on them but eventually, afraid of prompting another legal notice, he stopped selling those, too.
"They know they weren't the first ones to come out with it," Uzupus said. "They figure just because of their sheer size, they can push us little guys around."
Brittany Ransom, co-owner of the Philadelphia-based 247swag Clothing, said her company has received two cease-and-desist letters on Suggs' behalf, most recently on Friday.
The letters — which she considers legally toothless "scare tactics" — have not deterred her company from selling Ball So Hard University apparel, she said.
"I'm just a small business owner," Ransom said by email Friday. "However afraid I might be of their threats, I refuse to be bullied."
On Thursday, Suggs said he did not know anything about the cease-and-desist letters and declined to comment on his T-shirt business. But Suggs sends out frequent reminders to followers on Twitter and subscribers on Facebook, telling them where to buy his authentic "T-Sizzle" merchandise.
Denise White, Suggs' manager, said "locking this in" was his idea. "Terrell is a very smart businessman," said White. Although he is focused on the NFL playoffs, he has been planning for his life after football, she said. For instance, they're in licensing talks about Ball So Hard University with shoe companies.
"These T-shirt people are guys sitting on a corner. … They don't go through the proper channels," White said. "Terrell is trying to do it the right way. It's his baby."
White directed questions about the legal aspects of the dispute to Suggs' Towson-based trademark attorney, Kimberly Grimsley, who declined to comment because of attorney-client privilege.
E. Scott Johnson, chairman of the intellectual property practice group at the law firm Ober Kaler in Baltimore, said that it's doubtful Suggs has precedent over Bussells' trademark application to use the phrase on apparel because Bussells filed first.
"That filing date is meaningful," Johnson said. "I'm on Suggs' side; he's my man. But on a technical point, I'm not sure he has it."
However, there is a potential for Suggs to put a stop to others' commercial use of the phrase through a legal theory called "right of publicity," Johnson said. The theory, cited in the cease-and-desist letters sent out by Grimsley, essentially prevents people from benefiting from the use of a person's name, likeness or attributes closely associated with the person's identity.
For instance, Johnson said, in the 1980s a portable toilet company was prevented by talk-show host Johnny Carson from using the phrase "Here's Johnny."
"If they can make [Ball So Hard University] an attribute of his persona, immediately identified as part of Suggs' persona, he has a shot," Johnson said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.
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