Pitt roars over use of school's panther logo

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Topic on Apr 23, 2010 03:49 PM

The panther head logo emblazoned on the field at Whitmer High School's football stadium is said to be Ohio's largest high school field logo.

The only problem is the growling panther image -- stretching 20 yards across the center of the $600,000 field -- belongs to the University of Pittsburgh, according to Pitt officials.

The university contacted Washington Local Schools in Toledo earlier this month and ordered the high school to stop using it.

Superintendent Patrick Hickey said a Whitmer student has since created a new panther logo and the district plans to trademark it. But to remove the existing logo from the three-year-old football field, its basketball hard court, and from the back stadium wall would mean "enormous dollars."

That's because the brilliant yellow panther head isn't just dyed or painted onto the football field. It's "sewn" into the state-of-the-art turf, Mr. Hickey said. And, he added, painting over the logo or otherwise covering it might void the warranty.

Mr. Hickey said he hasn't added up the potential expense. He said the school district asked the university for mercy in an April 15 letter, which outlines a remedial course of action for withdrawing the logo from use. School officials said they haven't heard back from Pitt yet.

Mr. Hickey agrees the logo looks virtually the same as one the university owns. But he said he doubts the university would want to financially harm a local school district.

"If they come back and say, we want it removed, then I don't see any way we wouldn't have to replace it," Mr. Hickey said. "If they were to do that, I would call the [university] president. I just don't see it going that far."

It's unclear how the university learned of Whitmer's logo or why it decided to contact the high school.

A university spokeswoman, Madelyn A. Ross, said in an e-mail late Thursday that the university was "unable to comment on this situation."

There's a tradition of high schools and their sports teams using images, letter configurations, and color schemes that mimic pro and collegiate sports team logos and other markings, said several high school sports experts.

"It probably happens more than people realize," said Bob Goldring, associate commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

But he said protection of collegiate trademarks has become more focused and aggressive in recent years, and local school systems could run afoul.

"I know trademark and licensing is something that has come to the forefront in the past 10 years," Mr. Goldring said.

Recent court decisions have given universities greater latitude in trademarking their identities, including a July 2006 decision upholding a trademark for Ohio State University's scarlet and gray color scheme.

And the schools say they're aggressively guarding brands and images built up over decades or even centuries. The universities have trademark offices geared toward monitoring who might be using logos and other protected images and phrases without permission.

Whitmer High football hadn't planned for the panther head to become such a prominent symbol of its program.

About five years ago, the school started using it as a minor, secondary logo, said Whitmer High Athletic Director Tom Snook.

But he said its use blossomed, and it was drawn into plans for the new football stadium and its fancy new turf. The school sealed the image into its hardwood basketball court, and it appeared on billboards, posters, and even on the high school's Wikipedia entry, Mr. Hickey said.

"We were really victims of our own success," he said.

In its April 15 letter, the district asked the university for special permission to use the logo on the Whitmer football field, basketball court, and stadium wall until it can be removed when the facilities are updated or replaced. In exchange, Whitmer will give credit to the university in written sports programs.

Mr. Hickey said Thursday that he was still waiting for a response but is moving ahead with the plan of action, which includes stopping use of the logo on its website, on uniforms and helmets, and ordering new stationery.

School officials also found a student to rework the panther head and is asking the university to sign off on it, Mr. Hickey said.

Mr. Snook, the athletic director, said he likes the new panther head better.

"It's cleaner," he said. "It's not as busy."

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