Everett Steele is an Atlanta Braves fan. He goes to games, he wears Braves apparel, he tweets about the team to his 16,000-plus Twitter followers. He's a big enough fan that when he started noticing people misspelling the team's name as "Barves" online, he spent time and money making it a meme.
Steele started making Barves jokes on Twitter, and others quickly joined in. So he and his wife, who jointly run a social media marketing firm, began printing t-shirts featuring the joke team name and selling them on the internet. Being a fan and a community-minded guy, he decided to donate all proceeds to the Atlanta Braves Foundation, which supports nonprofits around the Atlanta metro area.
Seems harmless enough, right? Beneficial, even, to have a superfan turn a joke into financial support for good causes? Not to Major League Baseball, it doesn't. Within a few days of the first local media stories about the Barves products, the Steeles received a cease-and-desist letter from the league for infringing on the trademark it holds over a script team name (no matter the spelling) above a tomahawk.
The MLB holds the trademarks to every baseball team's name and logo, so Bud Selig and company are well within their rights to shut down every fan-generated meme on the planet. But just because it's their legal right doesn't make it a good business decision. (It's worth noting that similar challenges have occurred in other pro sports leagues, but not with nearly the frequency; earlier this year the NFL dropped a lawsuit against a New Orleans company making "Who's 'dat?" merchandise to support the Saints.)
The Steeles have plenty of company as victims of the MLB's overeager legal department. In 2008, the league forcibly ended production of a series of t-shirts spelling out then-candidate Obama's name in different teams' fonts. In 2009, a Yankees blog called The Yankees Universe was shut down after the MLB decided it "falsely [implied] some endorsement or sponsorship by the Yankees." Years after many Latino fans began referring to the Dodgers as "Los Doyers" and printing t-shirts with the nickname, the league trademarked the phrase and began selling merchandise (at a terrific markup, natch) in the team's stadium. And in an egregious crime against comedy, a cease-and-desist letter killed off the best t-shirt baseball has ever produced—which contained a stylized image of Rangers manager Ron Washington and the Wash-ism that became an anthem, "That's the way baseball go." The league, not Washington, trademarked the phrase to guarantee no one would ever make a cent off of it.
There are plenty of these sad stories with some key details in common: None of the products were bringing in more than a few hundred dollars for their creators. None of them represented a real challenge to baseball's business model. All of them were created by diehard fans, the core of the MLB's audience and the people league officials should take the greatest pains not to alienate.
Asked about his reaction to the letter he received, Everett Steele waxed philosophical: "Instead of ... capitalizing on the opportunity to sort of catalyze their fan base, they've instead attacked the people who are passionate and love their brand," he told Atlanta television station WXIA.
You don't have to think "Barves" is funny to agree with that perspective. We love sports in large part for the community they create, for the opportunity to drink beer and crack jokes about the action on the field. Major League Baseball isn't going to create a funny meme about one of its own teams or players or managers. That's the fans' domain. And when the powers that be take that away, they tell us our enjoyment doesn't really matter even though its our dollars that keep their product is afloat. Being a humorless league commissioner is a forgivable sin; denying other people the right to have their own fun crosses the line.