University of Houston receives cease-and-desist letter from NFL over its Oilers-inspired uniforms

Rice University also wore Oilers-like uniforms earlier this year, but an athletics spokesperson for the private school said it has not received any pushback from the NFL.

UH Oilers Uniforms
University of Houston athletics
The University of Houston wore uniforms resembling the Houston Oilers on Sept. 2, 2023, at TDECU Stadium.

The cool-looking light blue uniforms worn by the University of Houston football team earlier this year have gotten the school in hot water with the NFL.

An attorney representing NFL Properties sent a cease-and-desist letter to UH earlier this month, alleging trademark infringement and asking the school to stop using the Houston Oilers-inspired uniforms the Cougars sported during their season-opening home game against UTSA on Sept. 2, according to a copy of the letter that was provided Monday by UH. The league also demanded that UH discontinue related merchandise sales and remove online promotional materials that feature the uniforms, which included light blue jerseys with red-and-white trim – along with a red, white and blue stripe pattern on the helmet, shoulders and pant legs – much like the Oilers wore during their home games in the Astrodome.

As first reported by the Houston Chronicle, the NFL threatened legal action over what it referred to as "blatant copying" of a trademark owned by the Tennessee Titans, who were called the Oilers before the franchise relocated to Tennessee after the 1996 NFL season and subsequently rebranded itself. The Titans wore throwback Oilers uniforms during their home game Sunday against Atlanta and plan to do so again during their Dec. 17 home game against the Houston Texans.

"The Houston Cougars' attempt to free ride on the popularity of the NFL and the clubs violates the intellectual property rights of the NFL and the Titans," NFL attorney Bonnie J. Jarrett wrote in the Oct. 11 letter.

Media relations representatives for the Titans did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday, and the NFL could not immediately be reached for comment.

A spokesperson for UH declined to comment beyond providing copies of the aforementioned letter and an Oct. 20 response written by Dona Hamilton Cornell, general counsel for the university. She wrote that while she disagreed with the assertions and characterizations in the letter from the NFL, the Cougars "would not continue to use the jersey without coming back to you and I conveyed that commitment to our athletic department."

The football team at Houston's Rice University also wore Oilers-inspired uniforms this year – during the Owls' Sept. 30 home game against East Carolina – but Rice athletics spokesperson Chuck Pool said Monday he is not aware of the school receiving any pushback from the Titans or NFL. Rice's "Luv Ya Owls" uniforms were made to honor the Oilers era from 1965-67, when the professional team played its home games at Rice Stadium.

Those Oilers teams, which played in the American Football League (AFL) before it merged with the NFL, wore silver helmets with red, white and blue stripes along the top. The Owls' uniforms on Sept. 30 looked similar, with them replacing the iconic oil derrick logo with an "R" for Rice.

Rice also wore light blue jerseys with red-and-white trim, although they said "Rice" across the front while incorporating dark blue stripes on the shoulders. The Cougars' Oilers-inspired uniforms featured "Houston" across the front of the jerseys and on the side of the helmets.

"It definitely wasn't the Oilers' uniforms, the ‘Luv Ya Blue' era, etc.," Pool said, referring to the uniforms worn by Rice. "It was incorporating the elements as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the Oilers' years at Rice Stadium. But it wasn't meant to be a direct recreation."

Jarrett wrote in the Oct. 11 letter to UH that the "Luv Ya' Blue" uniforms of the Oilers – who were given that moniker in the 1970s – are among the "famous and valuable" trademarks associated with the NFL. She also wrote that two UH staffers were informed in February that NFL Properties "did not consent to the Houston Cougars' use of the uniform at issue or any similar designs."

NFL Properties and the Titans "were disappointed to learn" that UH ended up wearing "confusingly similar" uniforms on Sep. 2, Jarrett wrote.

Jarrett's letter also referenced a Sept. 15 email from Cornell, quoting her as saying the Cougars "have no current plans to use that uniform for merchandising that particular uniform." Cornell wrote in her Oct. 20 email that, "When and if we plan to market merchandise, I remain committed to coming to you for further discussion prior to implementation if it becomes necessary."

Cornell also referenced social media posts featuring the uniforms in question, writing that some "may not have been removed and I have reminded our personnel that these posts we control should be removed."

As of Monday afternoon, several posts including images of the light blue UH uniforms – made in the days leading up to and following the Sept. 2 game when the Cougars wore them – remained on the football team's Twitter/X account. A Sept. 1 post said, "Houston Football's commemorative uniform unveiling recorded 246.6 million earned media potential reach from 125 media sources across 35 states."

"Having fully informed you of your rights, (NFL Properties) will treat any future unauthorized use of the NFL Marks, including the Oilers Trade Dress, as intentional and willful, which would entitle (NFL Properties) to enhanced damages and reimbursement of its attorneys' fees," Jarrett wrote in her Oct. 11 letter.