The NFL really, truly stepped in it this time.
This claim that the cry of New Orleans Saints fans ("Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?") is owned by the NFL is, of course, silly. But the NFL was perfectly happy to send out cease-and-desist letters to people selling "Who Dat" T-shirts in advance of the Super Bowl.
Predictably, the move triggered an uproar. Online petitions, Facebook groups, political rumblings, and so on. And now, the NFL says it didn't really mean to claim ownership of the phrase. It just wants unlicensed vendors to stop selling T-shirts that, well, have the Saints logo on them.
But that's a little tricky, too. Because the logo is the fleur-de-lis, the stylized lily that is ubiquitous in New Orleans. So if I whip up a T-shirt with a fleur-de-lis and the phrase "Who Dat", how have I infringed on any NFL trademarks?
Old-timers say the "Who Dat?" phrase has been used in New Orleans for a long time, certainly long before the Saints arrived on the scene. Same with the fleur-de-lis. Heck, if you really want to get picky, even the word "Saints" was in pretty common use in the Crescent City long before the NFL came to town.
We all get it: any big company (and the multi-billion dollar NFL is certainly a big company) has to protect its interests. Trademarks have value, and that value needs to be defended. If someone without an NFL license is selling shirts that literally rip off the Saints' name and logo and colors, the NFL has a right to go after them--whether the shirt says "Who Dat?" or not.
But to claim ownership of the fans' emotions? Dumb and short-sighted. If there's anyone in the NFL with a heart, the next press release will say the league has decided that "Who Dat?" is in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, anytime, any way.