Here at Texas A&M; University, a school obsessed with tradition, there’s no more sacred a ritual than standing during an entire football game, just in case you’re needed on the field as the 12th Man.
So when the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks embraced the “12th Man” theme this season, the school moved decisively: A&M; took the Seahawks to court, arguing that the 84-year-old Aggie tradition is so central to the school’s identity that the phrase has been trademarked -- twice.
This week, a state court judge agreed, issuing a temporary restraining order that stopped the Seahawks from using the phrase. But on Thursday, the Seahawks won a point in the legal tug-of-war by petitioning to move the case to federal court in Houston.
The latest filing effectively means that the matter will not be resolved before Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When asked about the dispute, Seahawk spokeswoman Suzanne Lavender said Friday that “with the biggest game in our history coming up, we’re not commenting on what’s happening in Texas.” But Steve Moore, A&M;'s chief marketing officer, dismissed Seattle’s motion as irrelevant. The Texas restraining order still stands, he said. If federal marshals patrolling the Super Bowl facility in Detroit find any “12th Man” merchandise, they will confiscate it, he said.
“Students at A&M; take great pride in the 12th Man; they feel they can affect the outcome of games, even if they’re not on the field,” Moore said. “The spirit of the 12th Man is something unique that we can offer to students, and we’re making sure its value is not diluted.”
In 2004, the Seahawks stopped using the phrase after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from A&M;, Moore said. But in 2005, as the high-riding team’s 12th Man rallying cry got national attention, the Aggies’ written request was ignored. “They didn’t respond at all. I can’t explain it. Normally, with professional organizations, you don’t get to this level,” Moore said of the court action.
The team’s front office may have been uncommunicative, but Seahawk fans have had no problem expressing their feelings about the dust-up, jamming online forums with posts calling the Texans “morons” and “idiots” and suggesting the entire state secede -- or at the very least get over themselves.
“Surely there are things more important in this world to worry about than whether the Seahawks have ripped off your trademarked ‘12th Man’ idea.... What’s next? Are you going to threaten to sue the Seahawks for cheering after touchdowns? Is that something you think is unique to College Station?” wrote a Seattle Times columnist.
If Seahawk supporters think it’s preposterous for A&M; to go to court over a two-word phrase, Aggies have a hard time believing the Seahawks would try to hijack it in the first place.
The 12th Man concept has long permeated life at A&M; and “brings the student body together,” said Jonathan Fisk, an 18-year-old freshman. “If everyone could use 12th Man, it wouldn’t have near the same meaning to us as it does now.”
Sophomore Jillian Pence wonders if Seahawk fans “understand how important this is to us. We have a lot of traditions, but 12th Man is the big one, you don’t find it anywhere else. We’ve had it for a long time, and it may be harsh to ask them to stop using it, but I think they should acknowledge that it’s ours.”
The 12th Man tradition at A&M; dates to 1922, when a student was pulled from the stands to suit up for a game in case the injury-plagued Aggies needed an assist.
The idea has evolved into a seriously regarded commitment by fans to stand ready to support the team. The school sells 12th Man merchandise, a 12th Man Foundation supports the athletic program, and the stands at Kyle Field are adorned with giant letters that read “Home of the 12th Man.”
The Seahawks’ history with the 12th Man dates to the mid-1980s, when raucous fans raised the roof at the now-demolished Kingdome. In honor of fans, the team retired the number 12 in 1984.
The Seahawks’ success in 2005 revived the 12th Man fever in the Pacific Northwest -- and a regional catchphrase went national as the team advanced to the Super Bowl. A large No. 12 flag has been hoisted atop Seattle’s Space Needle, and the slogan appears everywhere, from souvenir jerseys to a 12th Man Margarita.
To be clear, A&M; has no problem with unfettered use of the number 12, Moore said. But add “man” to the number, and it’s time to call the lawyers, Super Bowl or not.
A&M;, with a licensing staff of two people, vows to remain vigilant. “We have a lot tied up in the 12th Man,” Moore said. “We’re like a company protecting a brand.”