The National Football League is so popular, it can get away with applying Roman numerals to its championship game. It is a corporate colossus that vigilantly protects its trademarked terms, like the words "Super Bowl,'' "Super Sunday," "NFL'' and the names of teams. Each year it sends out cease-and-desist letters to businesses and advertising firms demanding that such terms not be used for commercial purposes. But now the NFL is pushing into Cal and Stanford territory. The NFL wants to trademark the phrase "The Big Game." The league quietly began the process a year ago in an attempt to undermine companies that engage in so-called ambush marketing of the Super Bowl -- that is, efforts by unlicensed companies to leverage the hype surrounding the game for commercial promotions. One way that advertisers who aren't NFL sponsors typically attach themselves to the Super Bowl is simply to refer to it as "The Big Game.'' As in, "Get your flat-screen TV in time for the Big Game." What is a generic term for most people becomes a very specific term in the lamp-blacked eyes of the NFL. But the Big Game also has a very specific application for Stanford University and UC Berkeley, whose annual football game dates back to 1892. It has been known as the Big Game since 1902, according to San Francisco author Ron Fimrite, who is writing a history of Cal football. As Bob Murphy, a former Stanford baseball player who has been an analyst on Stanford radio broadcasts for many years, said, "This game started way before there was anything called the National Football League. Besides, it's such a common expression, I don't know how you would trademark it. It's like copyrighting 'hello' and 'goodbye.' It's kind of silly.'' Former Cal football coach Joe Kapp fumed when he heard about the NFL plan. "Traditions and the names of traditions are meaningful in college football,'' he said. "What's next? The game between the two greatest universities in the world that play big-time football is the Big Game. It's a tradition. It's history. That's the true meaning of sport.'' The NFL insists that Cal and Stanford have nothing to fear if it is granted the trademark by the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office. "This filing was done in regard to companies that have attempted an end-run around the term 'Super Bowl,' " said Brian McCarthy, the NFL's director of corporate communications. "So this would not affect the college game that's played in the fall. "It would affect somebody who was trying to intimate a relationship with the NFL or the Super Bowl. They're trying to draft off the goodwill we've built up over the years.'' Asked if a local TV dealership was attempting to intimate a relationship with the NFL simply by pointing out that a customer could watch "the Big Game'' on a new flat-screen TV, McCarthy said, "We sell those (sponsorship) rights. In the example you cite, we have an agreement with Samsung on flat-screen TVs. Where do you draw the line? If you don't trademark your rights, they hold no value." Cal and Stanford aren't taking any chances that the NFL would confine its trademark aspirations to its championship game. Both schools have taken initial steps to oppose the trademark through the Collegiate Licensing Co., a firm based in Atlanta that represents them, 173 other schools, 17 bowl games and the NCAA. Michael Drucker, vice president and associated general counsel for Collegiate Licensing, said Cal and Stanford "have developed a lot of equity in the game and ancillary products like apparel. In my opinion, the NFL could never assert against the universities that they can no longer use this phrase because of more than 100 years of use.'' He said the NFL's action might prompt Cal and Stanford to seek their own collective trademark of the Big Game, just as Alabama and Auburn collectively registered the name "Iron Bowl'' several years ago and as Texas and Oklahoma are in the process of doing with the "Red River Rivalry.'' "I'm not sure (Cal and Stanford) understood that they could do it," Drucker said. "Because of the NFL, they're aware of it now.'' Although the NFL's McCarthy said that the league's trademark application concerned only "a football game played on a Sunday in February'' and thus wouldn't affect the game at Stanford or Cal, Drucker said, "Cal and Stanford still don't want anybody to have rights to a mark that references their game. The timing of the game is somewhat irrelevant.'' The local universities aren't the only ones getting in line to tackle the NFL on this issue. Among at least 15 companies that have filed for extensions with the trademark office in order to prepare their own objections are Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Anheuser-Busch, Kellogg, Dell and Clear Channel Broadcasting. None of them are official NFL sponsors, although some of them pay millions to advertise on Super Bowl broadcasts. "What that shows you,'' Drucker said, "is there are a lot of people concerned about this for ambush marketing reasons. Our interests are a little different. We don't want to refer to it as it relates to the Super Bowl, just for the Cal-Stanford game.'' While some critics might contend that the NFL is demonstrating a corporate arrogance, he said, "I'm not sure the people at the NFL know about the Cal and Stanford game. They're trying to enhance their brand. I have no problem with what they've done.'' Gary Cavalli, a former Stanford sports information director who is now executive director of the Emerald Bowl, said, "I understand the NFL's concern with people trying to get around licensing requirements. Anybody who owns valuable sports property is interested in maintaining merchandising rights. In this case, though, it's a stretch. First, it's such a generic phrase, and second, it's a violation of a long-standing college tradition.'' Bob Sarlatte, master of ceremonies of the Guardsmen's annual Big Game luncheon, jokingly wondered if the NFL would also try to trademark phrases like "The Big Splash'' or "The Big Lebowski.'' "It's just stupid,'' Sarlatte said. "It's just more and more avarice in our midst.'' The NFL's pursuit of the trademark was news to Chris Calandro, owner of a Texas firm that has been making commemorative footballs for a dozen NFL teams and many colleges since 1993. "I was not aware of that,'' he said. He declined further comment. The name of his company is The Big Game.