The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Cleveland Indians are now the Guardians. A roller derby team with that name is suing: ‘There can only be one’

Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan speaks to the media during a July 23 news conference. Known as the Indians since 1915, Cleveland's Major League Baseball team will be called Guardians, effective at the end of the 2021 season. (Tony Dejak/AP)
5 min

It didn’t take long for the Cleveland Guardians’ website to crash on July 23. The roller derby team wasn’t expecting a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of visitors.

But curious Googlers weren’t looking for more information about the crew of helmeted competitors on four-wheeled skates. They were looking for their hometown Major League Baseball team, which earlier that day announced it was rebranding with the same name as the roller derby team.

The Cleveland Indians were now officially the Cleveland Guardians, the owner proclaimed.

The roller derby team filed a lawsuit against the baseball club in federal court on Wednesday in an attempt to block the name change. The team alleges the Cleveland Guardians Baseball Company infringed on its trademark and employed deceptive trade practices, violating an Ohio state law.

“A Major League club cannot simply take a smaller team’s name and use it for itself,” the lawsuit says, adding, “There cannot be two ‘Cleveland Guardians’ teams in Cleveland, and, to be blunt, Plaintiff was here first.”

In a statement, the baseball team said, “We have been and continue to be confident in our position to become the Guardians. We believe there is no conflict between the parties and their ability to operate in their respective business areas.”

Cleveland’s MLB team announces its new name, will rebrand as the Guardians

The Cleveland Indians, which adopted the name in 1915, finally acquiesced to intensified pressure to change its name in December 2020. The announcement followed a national reckoning over race and social justice issues. About seven months later, the team revealed its new name and logo, along with a promotional video narrated by longtime fan Tom Hanks.

“We sought a name that reflects the pride, resiliency and loyalty of Clevelanders, and Guardians embodies those defining attributes while drawing upon the iconic Guardians of Traffic,” owner Paul Dolan said in a news conference in July, referring to the stone statues carved into the bridge leading to the team’s stadium. “This change will divert us from a divisive path and instead steer us toward a future where our fans, city and region are all united as Cleveland Guardians.”

But the route to the new name and logo was not without controversy, the Cleveland Guardians roller derby team claims in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

Since 2013, the nonprofit all-gender roller derby team based in Parma, Ohio, a suburb just south of Cleveland, has printed its name and logo on shirts, cups, bumper stickers and other items. All proceeds from the merchandise are used to support the team, according to the lawsuit. In January 2017, the team formally registered the Cleveland Guardians name with the Ohio secretary of state.

“The Cleveland Guardians therefore have so-called 'common law’ trademark rights based on a priority of use in northeast Ohio that date back to late 2013 or early 2014,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims the baseball club “knew all about” the roller derby team before the announcement.

“Indeed, it is inconceivable that an organization worth more than $1 [billion] and estimated to have annual revenues of $290 [million-plus] would not at least have performed a Google search for ‘Cleveland Guardians’ before settling on the name, and even a cursory search would have returned Plaintiff’s website ( as the first ‘hit.’”

But on April 8, the baseball team discreetly filed a trademark application for the name in Mauritius, a small African island nation east of Madagascar, “effectively hiding the application unless one knew where to look,” the lawsuit says.

It wasn’t until June that lawyers for the Indians contacted the roller derby team, notifying them that “Cleveland Guardians” was one of the names under consideration, according to the lawsuit. A week later, the Indians’ lawyer allegedly sent an email to Gary Sweatt, the roller derby team’s owner, asking for pictures of the team’s jersey, logo and merchandise so he could discuss questions about intellectual property with club management.

Sweatt responded that same day but received no response, according to the lawsuit.

Concerned about the teams’ duplicate names causing confusion, Sweatt emailed the Indians’ lawyer on June 22 offering to sell the rights and website domain.

The lawyer replied, offering a “nominal amount, likely no more than fifteen minutes of annual team revenue,” the lawsuit says. Sweatt rejected the offer and countered. He didn’t hear back.

In the weeks that followed, the roller derby team later learned, the Indians filed another trademark application in Mauritius, this time for a logo, according to the lawsuit.

One thing stood out, the lawsuit says. The logos for the baseball team and the roller derby team look strikingly familiar. The derby team’s logo features a green and white “G” with a winged helmet resting on the letter. The baseball team’s new logo is red and white with two large winged “G”s on a baseball.

In federal trademark filings from July 22, the Indians claimed it had exclusive rights to the name for a “range of goods” including merchandising.

“That was a lie,” the lawsuit claims. “Mr. Sweatt literally sent them a photo of a Cleveland Guardians jersey. So, how could the Indians say they were not aware of that ‘use’?”

The following day, the team announced its new name and logo for the 2022 MLB season.

What followed was “chaos, confusion, and harm,” the lawsuit says. Just as feared, the derby team’s website and social media accounts were pushed down on search engines, and people began accusing Sweatt’s team of stealing the baseball team’s name, according to the lawsuit.

“There can only be one Cleveland Guardians in Cleveland,” the lawsuit says.