Talk about picking on the little guy.
SEC powerhouse Texas A&M University lodged two complaints this week against four Buffalo Bills fans for using a website with a common football phrase that infringed on its trademark. The school also held out the possibility of legal action.
One of targets is Charles “Chuckie” Sonntag, a double amputee and cancer survivor. He co-founded 12thManThunder.com website to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Texas A&M owns the rights to the term “the 12th man.” Sonntag, who overcame cancer last year, has suffered since childhood from polyostotic fibrous dysplasia, also known as Albright’s disease, He lost his left arm 20 years ago, and his left leg was amputated in March.
“My experience has proven two things: a handicapped person can accomplish just about anything – and Texas A&M will sue just about anybody,” Sonntag said.
The university, which has a $5 billion endowment, was notified by an attorney of Sonntag’s disabilities, but that hasn’t stopped it from playing hardball – and potentially threatening Sonntag, who lives on an $825-a-month Social Security check. Sonntag came up with the idea of starting the website to rally fan support to keep the Bills here after learning of Ralph Wilson’s death. His website associates are three friends: Charles Pellien, Anthony Lynch and Paul Roorda. Since the website was launched, more than 10,000 fans have signed a petition to keep the Bills in Buffalo.
The Bills fans – three are from Orchard Park, and the fourth from South Buffalo – say they cooperated by changing the name to “BillsFanThunder.com.” However, Texas A&M, Sonntag said, was not satisfied with the pace.
“They said stop using it immediately. I tried to but it takes time. I have one arm, also, so I’m working over my phone because I couldn’t afford the computer service that month,” Sonntag said.
“We’ve tried to do it as quickly as possible, but it’s hard to change a group name on Facebook,” he said. “It’s very time-consuming.” The attorneys also demanded that all 250 posters mentioning the website be taken down from restaurants and bars and returned to the university. Collecting them was problematic, Sonntag said.
Website designer Extreme 360 also was reprimanded by the university.
Texas A&M spokesman Shane Hinckley said the website’s owners have been too slow to respond.
“We have been negotiating about a turnover date for several weeks. When it became apparent they would not make that change, we gave them a deadline of last Friday to respond. The domain name still needs to be transferred from their ownership. It is still redirecting to their website. Their use of social media is still in question,” Hinckley said.
Hinckley said Texas A&M, which has owned the trademark since 1922, only allows the Bills and Seattle Seahawks to pay licensing fees to use the phrase “the 12th man,” and under very specific conditions.
Sonntag, 55, earns about $5,000 a year in extra income, letting cars park on his property before home games. He said he fears the possibility of a lawsuit.
“I didn’t know they own the name, because I see it all over. It’s on the Bills Wall of Fame. Why would they single out a disabled man?”
Pellien said he also thinks Texas A&M has overreacted.
“Everyone uses ‘the 12th man.’ It’s a shame that people can actually buy and own words,” he said.
“We’re not doing anything to harm their school, or take any business away from them or making any money off of it. It’s just a fan organization that wants to save our Bills.”