Better Than Before

January 29, 2015
What do you do when you are forced to change your logo? The best high schools turn it into a positive situation. And many are also trademarking their identity.
By Mike Phelps

Mike Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at: [email protected].

About a decade ago, Doug Peters, Athletic Director at Lake Mary (Fla.) High School, faced a seemingly simple question from his head football coach. The coach presented Peters with a new rendition of the school's ram logo and asked if he could have it painted on the football field.

Peters readily agreed. The image was a great fit for the school and was eventually adopted as the official mark for Lake Mary. Previously, different teams used different ram logos, and Peters wanted consistency.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2009, when a letter arrived at Lake Mary from Chrysler Group LLC's legal team insisting the school discontinue use of the logo. As it turned out, the school's ram looked just like that of Chrysler's Dodge Ram logo. According to Chrysler, Lake Mary was infringing upon its trademark.

Peters immediately contacted Lake Mary's school attorney and superintendent. They estimated it would cost the school district $75,000-100,000 to make all the changes around campus that Chrysler was asking for.

Lake Mary is not alone in dealing with a logo crisis. Other high schools have been told to stop using marks that resemble those of universities. Some need to retire Native American logos and create new identities. And a few high schools are starting to trademark their logos. Understanding the social and legal ramifications of your logo has become a need-to-know item for today's athletic director.

In Lake Mary's situation, the school's first step was to have its attorney contact Chrysler to ask for some leniency. It eventually agreed that Lake Mary would not have to immediately alter its gym floor, one of the major expenses, and would have until the end of the school year to make other changes, rather than having to complete everything immediately.

Still, the process was an enormous undertaking. Peters says he didn't realize how many places the logo appeared until it became a problem. "We had it on parking passes, stationery, pens, pencils, every uniform, every staff shirt, the scoreboard, the press box, and the list went on," he says.

Along with the gym floor, another difficult-to-change area was a set of iron benches that had the logo engraved into them. The solution the attorneys came up with was attaching signs to the benches and inside the gym that read, "Chrysler Supports Lake Mary High School."

While corporations such as Chrysler are not looking to harm high schools or make athletic directors' lives difficult, it is important for them to aggressively protect their logos--a fact Peters readily understands. The signs in the Lake Mary gym and on the benches merely served as temporary remedies until the school could remove the benches and repaint the court.

Fortunately, Lake Mary then received some good news from a start-up marketing company called Global Village Concerns. The San Diego-based non-profit group, which was founded in response to budget cuts at schools nationwide, volunteered to create a new logo for the high school. It also wanted to help Lake Mary fundraise to pay for the other changes that were necessary around the school.

"They saw our story on CNN and offered to work with us free of charge," Peters says. "We didn't want to pay for logo changes with educational money or our athletic department budget, so their services were really helpful."

The company created a few different logo designs and set up a Web site ( where people could vote for their favorite new logo and donate money to the school. The Web site voting was open to anyone, and it mainly served to generate interest in the cause. The final decision was based on a vote by the school's students, faculty, and staff.

Global Village also helped turn Lake Mary's annual spring football game, which normally drew around 600 fans, into a huge event that attracted 2,500 people. The game raised a significant amount of money through ticket sales and sponsors, who paid $500 to hang a sign on the stadium fence.

Through the work of Global Village, there was a VIP tent for local businesspeople, a barbeque, and appearances from professional athletes, including Lake Mary grad and Cincinnati Bengal Keith Rivers, who had his high school jersey retired at the event. Fellow NFL player John St. Clair, and NBA players Keyon Dooling and Courtney Lee, both of whom used to play for the nearby Orlando Magic, were also in attendance. "We were able to create a pretty big event out of a football game that was just between our own players," Peters said.

Lake Mary also received donations of $4,000 each from a local Chrysler dealer and a nearby Dodge dealer. "That was an important move," says Peters, "because there was some backlash against the local dealers, even though the whole thing was coming from the corporate offices."

Now that everything is behind him, Peters advises other athletic directors to be careful about choosing a logo and not make a decision without doing the necessary research. "I understand copyright and trademark laws and how important they are to businesses," he says. "We never thought we were using the Dodge Ram logo, we just found this image and liked it. Athletic directors need to be very careful about this issue."

At Greater New Bedford (Mass.) Regional Vocational Technical High School, Superintendent and former Athletic Director Michael Shea knew the school's VT logo was the same as that used by Virginia Tech, although with different colors. But even so, when a letter from the university arrived on his desk on July 7, 2009, Shea was caught off guard.

"I knew it might happen," Shea says, "but I didn't really expect it to because I didn't feel we were abusing the logo by any means. It was used in good faith."

Shea called Virginia Tech to plead his case, but came up empty. The university wanted the high school to stop all use of the logo and gave GNB Voc-Tech until the end of the 2009-10 school year to make it happen.

"The person I spoke with understood where I was coming from, but said if Virginia Tech allowed us to use it, it would have to let other people use it too," Shea says. "So we said, 'Let's create a new logo. And let's do it ourselves.'"

Every step of the way, Shea tried to turn the negative situation into a positive learning experience for his students. "We have a visual design program here, so I had an instructor and his students come up with different ideas for a new logo," he says. "We ended up with 300 sketches from our kids. That was narrowed down to 25, then to eight. We hung photos of the finalists in the main lobby and held a vote among students, staff, and alumni."

The students and Shea did research before creating their new designs to make sure they didn't copy something similar to another school's logo. "I also talked with the students about what was important for the school to have in the logo," Shea says. "We still wanted to incorporate the VT into the design, but also the GNB."

While the process took about four months and a lot of work, Shea believes his students now have a greater sense of ownership and pride in their school. "Before, deep down, the kids knew our logo was Virginia Tech's," he says. "Now they know it's theirs and that they were part of the change. There's a lot of pride in the new image and it has generated good feelings from the kids. Nobody else has a logo like ours."

To keep things that way, GNB Voc-Tech is trademarking its logo, which has provided another opportunity for students to get some hands-on experience. The school hired a lawyer to lead it through the process, and she is taking the time to talk to students about trademarks and the legal system.

Now that GNB Voc-Tech is protecting its mark, Shea is being careful to make sure the school is consistent in its use of the logo. Previously, it didn't matter if one color shade was slightly off, or if the letters weren't styled perfectly. Now, that commitment to detail is paramount.

"We have to be very strict to only use the proper colors and fonts because it's a trademark," Shea says. "We've had some issues with vendors not reproducing the logo accurately. Now that we have the trademark, it has to be exact."

Native American nicknames and mascots have long been a controversial topic in athletics. While many teams have undergone intense debates about changing the names, high schools in Wisconsin may no longer have a choice. A new law, signed by Governor Jim Doyle this past May, allows the state schools superintendent to order a school to change race-based team names, logos, mascots, or nicknames if there are citizen complaints.

Under the law, if a resident within a district's boundary files a formal complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction, the district will be notified and a hearing scheduled, assuming the state superintendent determines the complaint has merit. Following the hearing, if the state superintendent finds the mascot to be race-based and promoting discrimination, harassment, or stereotyping, the district will be ordered to change it within one year.

But officials at Poynette (Wis.) High School weren't interested in waiting to be told to change their name. So they broached the subject last summer and decided to stop using the school's Indians nickname.

The mascot controversy is nothing new in Poynette, where the school board has talked about changing the nickname off and on for the past 15 years and "Indians" had been removed from the majority of the school's sports uniforms. During the winter of the 2008-09 school year, the board passed a resolution to have a new nickname in place by Jan. 1, 2010.

From the outset, Poynette Principal Craig McCallum wanted to involve as many people as possible in the decision of selecting a new identity. Poynette had been the Indians for as long as McCallum could remember, and although the name was laced with controversy, there were still community members who identified with the Indians mascot. "We felt we needed to allow people an opportunity to be part of the process in the hope we would reduce the number of naysayers who would be disappointed with the new name," he says.

To accomplish that, McCallum met with the district superintendent and a group of high school student council members to identify 11 groups that would be allowed to propose three nicknames each. The groups were the seven classes of 2010-2016, the athletic booster club, the music program parents, the Parent Teacher Association, and Friends of the Fine Arts.

"Not everyone submitted three and there were some duplicates, so we were left with around 20 possible nicknames," McCallum says. "Then, in early June, the student council selected the top six."

In July, representatives from each of the 11 groups plus one from the school board met to discuss the plusses and minuses of the six remaining nicknames. In that meeting, one name was eliminated, which left the school with five choices: Mustangs, Bison, Pride, Pumas, and Panthers. In August, the group met again to select the final two, Pumas and Panthers.

"In between the July and August meetings, they discussed the options in their groups and in the community," McCallum says. "They also had the results of a survey we created and placed on our Web site. We were careful to state that the survey was advisory--the results wouldn't necessarily determine the two finalists--and that we wanted everyone in the community to have the opportunity for their voice to be heard. We received 443 votes and the top two were the same as what the committee chose."

Then, on the first Friday of the 2009 school year, students in grades six through 12 voted with paper ballots. McCallum felt it was vital to have only two finalists to guarantee a majority for the winner. "With three finalists you could have a split vote, with 40 percent in favor of one, and 30 percent picking each of the other two choices, and that didn't seem right," he says.

Once the votes were tallied, McCallum and his athletic director held the results for nearly a month before the grand unveiling at the school's homecoming pep rally on Oct. 1. McCallum arranged to have boxes of T-shirts featuring the new mascot ready to be sold as soon as the results were announced. The event received local media coverage and a new mascot costume made its debut at the next day's football game.

"Mascots are an emotional topic for lots of people, and I knew there would be some who were going to be unhappy, but we really tried to make it a positive experience," McCallum says. "My heart felt at ease when we announced that the winner was the Pumas and a big roar went up."

Despite some individuals in the community still upset about the name change, McCallum says the response has been overwhelmingly upbeat. "Our community now has a mascot we can really rally around, rather than downplay," McCallum says. "The key was including as many community and student groups as possible from the start. It's much easier to get their support ahead of time rather than making the change and then trying to drum up support afterwards."

Last fall, Bobby Bentley, Director of Athletics and Public Relations at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., came to a troubling realization. There were at least eight stores in the area, including some national chains, selling Byrnes Rebels merchandise--and the school was receiving nothing from it.

"The school, our touchdown club, and our booster clubs were not seeing any benefit from those stores selling merchandise with our name and logo on it," Bentley says. "So we decided to change that."

Rather than simply forbid the stores from selling items with the Byrnes marks, Bentley and other administrators began the process of creating a licensing program. They hired an attorney, who walked them through the process.

"It was not very complicated," Bentley says. "The attorney let us know what businesses were using the logos without permission, then sent letters telling them they had to contact the school district to be able to sell Rebel merchandise. The second thing she did was file for a trademark for the Byrnes High School name and the Rebels logo. That process took about six to eight months from the day we filed."

In the meantime, Bentley set up a licensing page on the Byrnes athletic department Web site that includes a form any retailer can fill out. Byrnes plans to charge $200-250 per year for a license, plus a percentage of sales. Businesses have to gain approval from the school for any item they plan to place the logo on and sell.

"We're not trying to make a million dollars off of this," Bentley says. "We just want our students and our school to see some benefit if stores sell merchandise with our logo.

"Our teams are very successful, so a lot of people have begun selling the merchandise--everything from CD holders to cups to flip-flops to lip balm with the Rebels logo on it," he continues. "The stores understood when we contacted them."

Bentley has had three inquiries to license so far and expects more to come in the future. "I would advise others to be proactive as their programs gain popularity," Bentley says. "I wasn't worried about things like this seven or eight years ago, but it's something I wish I had thought of then. It's the price you pay for success."

Sidebar: From the Pros
Anyone familiar with high school athletics has seen numerous schools that share nicknames and even logos with teams from the National Football League. While most colleges and businesses have taken a hard stance against high schools bearing a likeness to their marks, the NFL takes a different approach.

"We have always supported football on all levels and do not have an issue with high schools or youth leagues using logos of NFL clubs," says Brian McCarthy, NFL Vice President of Corporate Communications. "Local youth programs using NFL team logos help promote the NFL and its clubs and also provide youth players a sense of being part of the NFL."

But that doesn't mean a school can simply slap a Patriots logo on its football helmet and call it a day. While the league doesn't have a problem with teams using the mark, schools still have to ask permission. "The NFL acts as the licensing arm and controls use of team logos," McCarthy says. "If a high school reached out to a team, a team would refer the high school to our office. Youth football programs, however, can use the logo without permission."

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