UW’s Tomato Look and Reverse Licensing Hijinx (But Not Really)

When I heard the news that tomorrow Wisconsin is using a John Kerry-esque flip-flopped version of their traditional helmet, I was ambivalent, then unimpressed, then curious. That’s not the order in which the normal human fan mind processes sizeable deviations from the ‘norm’ of what ERMAHGERD MY TEAM is wearing. My thought process went this way because I had already seen that helmet before: tiny Weyauwega-Fremont High School in Northeastern Wisconsin has worn a variation of this helmet for years.

I know the Motion W is a unique W and obvious when copied, but if you look at the picture of Weyauwega-Fremont’s helmet, you’ll have to try really hard to NOT see an uncanny resemblance between that “W” and the Motion W. W-F’s way to circumvent the issue was to mesh an “F” into the back end of the W, and I haven’t heard or seen any complaints from Madison.

There is so much innovation occurring in football uniform design (loljags) that it’s somewhat surprising to see teams copying pre-existing templates and utilizing those blueprints for themselves. High schools copy colleges and professional teams, and colleges copy professional teams.

High schools may have some excuses for utilizing plans drawn up by others – public schools usually aren’t overflowing with money or time to create a unique look, and students are preoccupied with adolescent desires more than developing an image for their school. Additionally, high school kids are easily influenced and something as simple as a jersey that looks like that one successful college team can give kids the idea that they, too, can play like the big boys.

Most college teams, like Georgia and Grambling State, that have been using logos they did not create, but they’ve been using them so long that it doesn’t bother anyone. Those helmets are as much a part of their identity as they are part of Green Bay’s, and perhaps people don’t have an issue with the similarities because the teams are worlds apart geographically, culturally, and socially.

It seems harmless for a high school to stick a Motion W or wildcat on their helmet. However, colleges have been taking a stand against the unauthorized use of their logos for years. This is because those logos are licensed, and the schools make money off of them. However, one may think that colleges would actually want high schools in far-off parts of the country to use their logo – it’s free advertising for them, and we all know that schools don’t want to pay anyone to advertise or compete on their behalf. Isn’t this an effective, largely harmless way of spreading your brand?

Before my high school (Neenah High) developed its own logo in 2003-ish, we used the Alabama approach and simply had our numbers plastered on the sides of our helmets. Does this bland, basic gesture have a copyright or license behind it? They’re just numbers on the sides of the helmets! Is that generic enough that anyone could do it? I have no idea whether Alabama did, or would ever demand that we cease and desist from using this template, but everyone knew that we were copying Alabama, and the players absolutely held out .01% of hope that we would play something like those legendary Crimson Tide teams. It definitely connected me to Alabama a touch more than it otherwise would have; every time I saw the Tide take the field, those helmets reminded me of the ones that my high school team wore, and I thought we could be sweet like Alabama with that simple, classy, and effective look.

Should Weyauwega-Fremont sue Wisconsin tomorrow when UW takes the field in all-red, just like the Indians (let’s not go there) do for every home game? Poor W-F doesn’t have the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) on its side, so they’ll just have to toil away in obscurity for the time being.