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Super Bowl Week silliness aside, NFL remains ‘No Fun League’

January 30, 2019

It’s Super Bowl week. Time for the NFL to remind the world why critics like to refer to it as the “No Fun League.”

Whether it’s rejecting ads as too racy or too edgy, warning church groups that they can’t legally call their game-day festivities “Super Bowl” parties or this year’s push against prop bets, the NFL has a famously tight grip on the marquee event that captures the world’s attention on the first Sunday of every February.

The “Super Bowl” name is atop a long list of copyrighted terms and trademarked logos related to the championship game that the NFL fiercely protects. Small-business owners marketing sales around Super Bowl Sunday cannot reprint the Super Bowl logo or use the phrases “Super Bowl” or “Super Sunday” in their promotions.

Those are some obvious no-nos, but they get more nitpicking. The full list includes “National Football League,” “American Football Conference,” “National Football Conference” or any team name such as “Rams” or “Patriots.”

Where does that leave businesses? The clunky phrases “The Big Game in Atlanta,” “The Professional Football Championship Game in Atlanta” and “The February 3rd Game” are all OK, according to Lerman Senter PLLC, a communication law firm in the District that advises its clients on how not to run afoul of the NFL’s restrictions.

Also acceptable are the geographical locations that denote the competing teams Los Angeles or New England as long as the Rams’ and Patriots’ names aren’t attached.

Business owners aren’t the only ones affected. The NFL famously warned a church in 2007 that it couldn’t advertise its “Super Bowl Party,” at which the church planned to charge admission.

Philip Bonomo, a lawyer with Lerman Senter, said cases like that are less common these days.

“I think the optics of going at the church probably didn’t go over too well,” Mr. Bonomo said. “So my understanding, without knowing specifically, is they have backed off on those type of claims.”

Mr. Bonomo said the NFL’s zeal for marking its territory is matched only by the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee a “big three” in sports known for aggressively policing trademarks for their marquee events. (The NFL is not a client of Lerman Senter. The firm sent a memo as a reminder to its clients, many of which are broadcast media companies.)

Another barometer for the league’s consternation over its image is its complicated relationship with gambling. Several states and the District of Columbia voted for legal sports betting last year after the Supreme Court struck down the law that limited it to Nevada.

In September, the NFL’s executive vice president went to a House of Representatives committee to argue for a ban on proposition bets better known as prop bets the type of betting focused on smaller, individual outcomes that become popular before the Super Bowl. Odds and over/unders are posted for predictions such as how many touchdowns Tom Brady will throw, what color of Gatorade will be dumped onto the winning coach and how long the national anthem performance will last.

“These types of bets are significantly more susceptible to match-fixing efforts and are therefore a source of concern to sports leagues, individual teams and the athletes who compete,” said NFL executive VP Jocelyn Moore, according to The Associated Press.

Prop bets won’t be banned in time for Super Bowl LIII, but at least one Super Bowl commercial was. CBS, which holds the Super Bowl broadcasting rights this year, rejected a TV spot advocating for wider legalization of medical marijuana.

In that case, it wasn’t the league but its broadcast partner that made the decision, but the NFL does reserve control over the content of Super Bowl ads. Last year, it rejected an ad from a veterans group that asked people to stand for the national anthem. The NFL surely was hoping to avoid additional negative attention to players who knelt during the anthem to protest what they see as racial injustices.

“I just know generally that they’re very protective of their brand. ‘The shield,’ they call it, I believe,” Mr. Bonomo said. “If they don’t want to be associated with a particular product or a particular cause, they’re well within their rights to take that approach.”

Controversial topics and image protection are not just off-the-field fare either. Commissioner Roger Goodell is facing pressure from players, fans, lawyers and politicians alike to speak up about a missed penalty in the NFC Championship Game that hurt the New Orleans Saints’ chances of winning.

Mr. Goodell has yet to say anything publicly about the incident prompting a U.S. senator from Louisiana and retiring Saints tight end Benjamin Watson to call out the commissioner for avoiding the topic.

“Your continued silence on this matter is unbecoming of the position you hold, detrimental to the integrity of the game and disrespectful and dismissive to football fans everywhere,” Watson posted on Twitter.

But, as luck would have it, Super Bowl week is also the time of year when the commissioner delivers his State of the League address and takes questions from the football press. It would be a surprise if the topic of making penalties (and missed penalties) reviewable isn’t one of the first questions Goodell faces Wednesday.

If he gives a nonanswer or tries to push aside the uncomfortable topic, that could be considered another move to protect the shield.

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