Trotter: Players Coalition, NHL group at odds over trademark issue

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In 2016, a small group of NFL players had a big idea: band together to form a nonprofit through which they could advocate for racial equity and social justice.

The result was Players Coalition, which has “worked with over 1,400 professional athletes, coaches and owners across major professional sports leagues”  to play a contributing role in a handful of legislative victories in criminal justice and voter rights reform.

However, today, in addition to fighting to protect the rights and opportunities of others, the organization is fighting to protect its federally trademarked name, which it claims the National Hockey League began infringing on three months ago with the launch of “NHL Player Inclusion Coalition.”

Players Coalition officials contend the name lands too closely to their own, which could cause the public to mistakenly believe the groups are affiliated or working together as part of a larger organization.

“Players Coalition has attained goodwill and positive recognition across the social-justice and athlete-impact space over the past six years and we’re proud of all we’ve accomplished,” co-founder Anquan Boldin told The Athletic. “We stand behind the quality and integrity of our work and have to protect our brand and the mission. That starts with protecting our trademark rights.”

Jia Wang, senior counsel and trademark expert for the NHL, did not immediately return an email from The Athletic seeking comment. He was made aware of Players Coalition’s concerns roughly a week before the league rolled out its new initiative.

In part, his written response to Players Coalition stated: “The name of our group is the ‘NHL Player Inclusion Coalition,’ and we plan to consistently market it as such. And this name, quite simply, describes what our program is — a coalition of current and former hockey players brought together by the NHL and its players to advance equality and inclusion through and within hockey specifically, both on the ice for players and participants, and off the ice for those working in and around the game. As such ‘Inclusion’ is not a generic word here — it is an integral part of our name that explains what type of coalition ours is.”

He added: “In addition, the highly distinctive NHL and/or NHLPA trademarks appear in our coalition name and its related branding, to help distinguish our coalition from any others. This hockey-focused goal/mission of the NHL Player Inclusion Coalition does not have as its goal criminal justice reform or social equality more broadly through civic action, as expressly described on your website and in your trademark registration. For these and other reasons, our initiatives can coexist and the public is not likely to be confused.”

Players Coalition disagrees. It highlights that in the days following the rollout, media sites regularly referred to the group as “Player Inclusion Coalition” omitting “NHL” as part of the official title. Many of the stories were found on hockey pages, but more concerning to PC officials was that the initiative was consistently called “the coalition” on the second reference.

Players Coalition representatives forwarded examples of potential infringements in a cease and desist letter to the NHL on June 30. Wang, in writing, argued that the NHL was not in violation of trademark protections, concluding: “The NHL and its partners still do not see the need to change the name, branding or related activities of the NHL Player Inclusion Coalition.”

If the sides are unable to reach an amicable solution, the next step could be a formal trademark-infringement complaint from Players Coalition, which earlier this year extended its partnership with the NFL by an additional five years and $15 million in grants.

The sides first partnered in 2018, under what the league now calls the Inspire Change Initiative. Since then, the NFL and its teams, along with the players, have surpassed the initial 10-year, $250 million agreement that was committed to fight systemic racism in 2020.

The nonprofit’s voice and energy, combined with the financial commitment from the owners and players, played a part in the following legislative wins:

— Michigan ending the practice of prosecuting minors as adults by raising the age from 17 to 18 years old.

— Florida restoring voting rights to 1.4 million citizens with past felony convictions.

— Louisiana restoring voting rights to thousands of citizens with past felony convictions.

— Massachusetts committing $1.5 billion in new funding for public schools.

— Maryland passing the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” an education bill that will provide much-needed funding and critical policy changes to produce equity in public education throughout the state.

— Philadelphia passing the “Driving Equality Bill,” which will prevent police officers from pulling over drivers for low-level motor vehicle offenses like broken tail lights.

— Kentucky establishing a partial ban on no-knock warrants.

“In 2020, after police murdered George Floyd, the entire country weighed in on the fight for racial justice,” Players Coalition co-founder and 13-year NFL vet Malcolm Jenkins told at the time of the extension. “Sadly, those voices have dwindled, and a lot of ‘advocacy’ has been reduced to simple messages on Twitter. The work, however, remains just as critical and urgent as before.”

That work is extremely specific, which is why the NHL contends there should be no confusion between its goal of increasing inclusion and diversity within hockey and what Players Coalition is doing. The PC clearly disagrees, setting the stage for a potential legal battle.

(Photo of Anquan Boldin: Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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