But Don't Call Them The Colts

July 25, 1994
July 25, 1994

Table of Contents
July 25, 1994

World Cup
Pro Football
SI 40th Anniversary
Reporter At Large
Point After

But Don't Call Them The Colts

Baltimore's new CFL team, its name in legal limbo, has caught the city's fancy

A judge has ruled that, for the moment anyway, the team cannot call itself the C-word, but last Saturday, Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was the people's court. Every time the public address announcer said, "Your Baltimore CFL...," he paused to allow the crowd of 39,247 to bellow, "Colts!"—and no judicial decree could stop it.

This is an article from the July 25, 1994 issue

In case you missed this legal squabble, be advised that the brand-new Canadian Football League expansion team in Baltimore is being sued for trademark infringement by the NFL, NFL Properties and the Indianapolis Colts because Baltimore owner Jim Speros decided to call his team the CFL Colts. On June 27, in Indianapolis, U.S. District Court judge Larry McKinney granted the plaintiffs an injunction banning the Baltimore club's use of the name Colts, and at least until an appeal is heard, the franchise remains a Horse With No Name.

No one has ever reached for a writ because the Detroit Lions and the British Columbia Lions share a nickname, but the NFL believes there is room for confusion in this case even though Speros's team was planning to use a logo—a stylized stallion's head—far different from the original Colts' hoary horseshoe. When Speros's lawyers present arguments before a three-judge panel in Chicago on Aug. 3, they should make it clear that there is one other distinction between the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore CFL Fill-in-the-Blanks: The CFLs have an offense.

In Saturday's home opener against the Calgary Stampeders, Speros's team rolled up 398 yards, including 286 yards passing by quarterback Tracy Ham before he left in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. Alas for the Fill-in-the-Blanks, they failed to score touchdowns on four occasions when they had the ball inside the Stampeder 20, and their defense couldn't stop quarterback Doug Flutie, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in Calgary's 42-16 win. It was the first defeat for the Blanks, who had won both of their exhibition games and had begun the season by defeating the Toronto Argonauts 28-20.

Still the scofflaws in refurbished Memorial Stadium didn't seem to mind. They had football back, even if it was the 12-man, three-down version. This allowed them to do all their favorite things: spell C-O-L-T-S with their bodies, make obscene references to Indianapolis owner Bob Irsay, listen to the Baltimore Colts marching band (yes, together lo these many years) and display nasty posters about NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Speros, who made his money in real estate and restaurants, was having a fine time, despite the score. Before the game he and CFL commissioner Larry Smith rode onto the field on horseback.

But Speros was not horsing around with the preliminary injunction granted to the NFL. "My attorneys have suggested that any flagrant violation can land me in jail for 179 days without parole," Speros said. As a result, Baltimore is the only CFL team that uses more white-out than wideouts. Speros has had the word Colts removed from banners and the doors of the team office, and the offending name has been bleeped out of a commercial jingle. The home opener was also Poster Night, and in the days leading up to the event, five office workers labored to cover up the forbidden word on 10,000 giveaway posters. They went through 96 Magic Markers. "If you kept your mind on it," said Tina Bressi, "you could black out and roll 50 to 60 posters an hour."

What's in a nickname? Speros had to send out 100 letters advising local companies to cease using the C-word. CFL Colts merchandise sits in boxes in locked rooms. Speros figures that if the Fill-in-the-Blanks don't become the CFL Colts again, it will cost the team nearly $2 million. But there are loads of illicit goodies around Baltimore. Once McKinney issued his injunction, CFL Colts caps and T-shirts flew out of stores. On a cabinet behind Speros's desk sits the most delectable bit of contraband: a toy Baltimore CFL Colts moving van.

Baltimore does not forget. At 12:17 a.m. on March 29, 1984, a fleet of Mayflower moving vans left the Colts' training facility in suburban Owings Mills, bound for Indian police. Irsay was sneaking his team out of town in a sleet storm under the cover of darkness—"like a common thief," John Steadman wrote in the Baltimore News-American, which isn't around anymore either. The Fill-in-the-Blanks brought a moving van into Memorial Stadium before the Calgary game, but this time their cheerleaders clambered out. The team is 1-1, but, in choosing a truck from North American Van Lines, it leads the league in symbolism.

"I was 16, and I watched on TV as the moving vans loaded up, 18-wheelers, leaving in the dark," said Fill-in-the-Blank wide receiver Walter Wilson, a native of the city who caught six passes for 78 yards against Calgary. "I had always dreamed of playing for my hometown team, and that cold night it hit me that I probably would never have a chance."

"That was a great business decision," said Tom Matte, the old NFL Colt running back and occasional quarterback who is a limited partner and a vice president of the Fill-in-the-Blanks. "[Irsay] made the right choice. He had made noises about moving, but everybody—Baltimore, the state of Maryland—must have thought he was bluffing. It took a piece of my heart out, but that was probably the best thing that ever happened to the city. We get rid of the bastard."

If Irsay's midnight run was viewed as stabbing Baltimore in the back, the NFL's decision to snub the city and award expansion franchises to Charlotte and Jacksonville last fall was seen as twisting the knife. No NFL city, not even Green Bay, had experienced such a dizzying love affair with its team. The Baltimore Colts had played in the two most significant games in NFL history: the 23-17 sudden death win over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship—still referred to as The Greatest Game Ever Played—and the 16-7 loss in Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, which hastened the merger between the NFL and the American Football League. The players became part of the community, and some 40 former Colts still live in the Queen City. A knowledge of Colt history was the determining factor in whether Steve Guttenberg's character in the movie Diner would marry; if his fiancèe failed a Colt trivia quiz, the wedding was off. The couple married and presumably lived happily ever after, but the city never got over its divorce from the NFL. "Even now," says Speros, "whenever there's a toenail of hope of getting the NFL back—expansion or an existing team—all the mental antennae go up."

Speros, a 35-year-old Maryland native, was a linebacker on Clemson's 1981 national championship team, and he lasted two preseason games in 1982 with the now defunct Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. Speros served on the coaching staffs of the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills before leaving football for the business world in 1986, and in recent years he wanted to get back into the game. Even before Baltimore's NFL expansion bid floundered, he was angling for a team in the CFL, a league desperate to break into the U.S. market. The CFL conditionally granted him a franchise on Dec. 3, three days after Jacksonville was awarded the second NFL expansion slot, and final approval came on Feb. 17. Matte received the blessing of old Colts like John Unitas for the decision to use the hallowed nickname, and on March 1 Speros sought a declaratory judgment in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that would give him the legal right to call his team the Baltimore CFL Colts. Eight weeks later, the NFL sued to prevent the team from using the name.

"This is not a legal fight we started," said NFL spokesman Joe Browne in a prepared statement. "The CFL team initiated litigation, and NFL Properties was put into a situation of having to respond.... We respect the right of the CFL to establish franchises and play games where it chooses, including Baltimore, but our clubs cannot allow someone to misappropriate their trademarks and national identity that has taken many years to build."

Speros filed to overturn the injunction on July 1 in Chicago, but oral arguments won't be heard until Aug. 3. Meanwhile, the lawyers' meters are running, and Speros already owes $250,000 in legal fees. "We're small-potatoes guys," says Matte of a team with an annual operating budget that's somewhere in the vicinity of the $5.4 million that Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. will earn this year. The publicity for the Fill-in-the-Blanks has been swell, and everyone loves an underdog, but this is business. You can't expect a law firm to jump in cold and make first team All-Pro Bono.

If the injunction is upheld, Speros will have to decide if he will keep chasing the name given to the original franchise by a fan in 1947 when Baltimore played in the Ail-American Conference. But already Matte has been urging Speros to consider a different one—the Baltimore Pride. In letters to the Baltimore Sun, fans have suggested calling the team the Ponies or the Steeds, and an editorial cartoonist suggested Kholtz, though the CFL might want to use that if it expands to Stuttgart.

Though nameless, the Baltimore club is not riderless. Speros hired Don Matthews, the winningest active CFL coach, away from the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and signed free-agent stars Ham and nosetackle Jearld Baylis, the CFL's outstanding defensive player in 1993 with Saskatchewan. And the Fill-in-the-Blanks have some potential advantages over their north-of-the-border opponents. As a U.S. team, Baltimore is not subject to the Import Rule, which dictates that 20 of the 37 roster spots must go to Canadians. And geography will benefit Speros's team in at least one other regard: When free agents are faced with the choice of playing in Baltimore or, say, Winnipeg...well, let's just say that cold fronts won't be the only things Canada exports to the States.

Even before the Blanks played their first home game, Stampeder owner Larry Ryckman, the expansion committee chairman, was hailing Baltimore, with its 25,000 season tickets, as a model expansion franchise. Sacramento became the first CFL member in the U.S. in 1993, and this year Las Vegas and Shreveport, La., also have new teams, but those three cities are, in Ryckman's words, "developmental markets." The CFL is pushing ultimately for 10 or 12 teams in the U.S., hoping to invade places like St. Louis, Orlando, Birmingham, even Chicago.

Of course, with plans for so many South-of-the-49th Parallel teams in this pass-happy league, a movement is under way to change its name. "We'll take a vote by the end of the season," Ryckman says. By 1995, CFL could stand for the Continental Football League. That is, if no one objects.

THREE PHOTOSAL TIELEMANSWilson (84) was thrilled to play in his hometown, whose fans were determined to reclaim the Colts' name as well as their old stadium.PHOTOAL TIELEMANSThe no-names trucked into town 10 years after Irsay and his vans slunk away.PHOTOPEARSON/BALTIMORE SUN[See caption above.]PHOTOAL TIELEMANSEven though his team dropped its home opener, Speros looked like he may be riding a winner.FIVE PHOTOSAL TIELEMANSDefying the NFL, superfan Len Burrier used Baltimore body language to cheer on the C-O-L-T-S.