As first reported by the Houston Chronicle, the NFL’s merchandising and licensing division recently sent a “strongly-worded” cease-and-desist letter to the University of Houston to stop its football program from its wearing Oilers-inspired alternate uniforms again.
The Cougars wore the uniforms – which feature several elements from the Oilers’ “Luv Ya Blue” era, including a light blue jersey, white helmets and white pants with a classic striping pattern – during their 17-14 win over UTSA on Sept. 2.
Houston did not reference the Oilers during the uniform’s unveiling and instead promoted them as a love letter to the city, which the franchise called home from 1960 until they moved to Tennessee in 1997 and were renamed the Titans in 1999.
Still, the NFL described the uniforms as “blatant copying” of the Oilers’ vintage design and added that both the league and the Titans were “disappointed” the Cougars made “unauthorized use” of the franchise’s historic likeness.
“The Houston Cougars’ attempt to free ride on the popularity of the NFL and the club violates the intellectual property rights of the NFL and the Titans,” a league attorney said in the letter, which was set to the university on Oct. 13.
Against the wishes of many Houston residents, the Titans retain the rights to the Oilers’ trademark, which is why they wore throwback uniforms during this past weekend’s game against the Atlanta Falcons and will do so again against the Houston Texans on Dec. 17.
While the Cougars’ uniforms aren’t an exact replica of the Oilers’ 1975-97 design, as they featured a “Houston” wordmark across the chest and have stripes on the sleeves instead of the cuffs, the NFL “explicitly informed” the university back in February it did not consent to the “use of the uniform at issue or any similar designs.”
Houston “disagreed with assertions and characterizations” made in the cease-and-desist letter in its response to the NFL, but agreed to not wear the uniforms again, as the league will consider any future use “intentional and willful, which would entitle (NFL Properties) to enhanced damages and reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees.”
That said, Houston isn’t the only college football program that has paid tribute to the Oilers this season, as Rice wore gray helmets with red, white and light blue stripes down the middle during their Sept. 30 win over East Carolina, matching the Oilers’ 1966-70 design.
It’s unclear if the Owls received permission from the NFL to replicate the helmet design, though it’s worth noting the rest of the uniform could not be mistaken for the Oilers, with a large “Rice” wordmark across the chest, as well as blue and white stripes on the sleeves.
The Oilers actually called Rice Stadium their home from 1965-67 before moving to the Houston Astrodome, where they were co-tenants with the Cougars from 1968-96. Perhaps that connection made all the difference for the Owls – or maybe their letter is still en route.
Other examples of colleges wearing NFL-inspired designs include the Iowa Hawkeyes adopting the Pittsburgh Steelers’ look in 1979 after head coach Hayden Fry asked for permission, as well as Mississippi State replicating the New England Patriots’ uniforms during their 2016 trip to Gillette Stadium.
Arkansas also donned the Dallas Cowboy’s design in Razorback red during a 2017 loss to Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in honor of Cowboys owner and former Arkansas offensive lineman Jerry Jones’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.