The People’s Team: Why Progressives Should Back The Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys Sunday. As a dear friend of mine remarked in an email: “It’s always nice when a collectively-owned team beats one owned by a greedy mega-capitalist, who’s beloved by Chris Christie.”

So in that spirit, and given my excitement as both a fan and a team owner, not to mention the tough times ahead for progressives, I thought it worth recalling a couple of blasts from the past that I composed to celebrate the team and the town that has secured it.

The first – “Take on the Happy Pack” – I co-authored with Cornel University Government Professor Isaac Kramnick for the Washington Post’s 1997 Super Bowl Sunday edition and the latter – “The Green Bay Packers: Of the People, By the People, For the People” – I wrote for the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 following Green Bay’s 2011 Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This coming Sunday we play the Seattle Seahawks, so who knows if we’ll win. But in the meantime, I hope you appreciate the following two pieces and cheer for the People’s Team, the Green Bay Packers.

First: “Take on the Happy Pack” (1997)

Sure, it’s only a game. But today’s Super Bowl encounter between the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots also evokes the continuing battle between two antithetical ideologies that is fracturing public life in America. On one side is the besieged tradition, represented by the Packers, in which sports is an organic extension of civic and social life. On the other side is the newer, ascendant postmodern corporate ideology represented by the Patriots, in which sports, freed from place and loyalty, is merely an extension of the market.

When the sportswriters wax nostalgic about this little city on the Wisconsin tundra, they are, in part, tapping into the enduring appeal of midwestern populism. Underlying the memories of Vince Lombardi and championship teams of the 1960s is the reality of a friendly mill town of 100,000 industrious, tavern-going, working-class men and women (Packer fans come in both sexes) where America’s finest traditions are alive and well. Ever since the team’s founding 76 years ago, the fans have been ardently loyal, through good times and bad. So much so that the Wall Street Journal anointed the Packers as “the conservatives’ dream team.” No way. In contrast to every other professional sports franchise (and the Journal’s editorialists), the team’s ownership is not obsessed with the profit motive. This is the unique and fundamental feature of the Packers’ longevity and, quite possibly, the basis of their success today. The Packers are a nonprofit corporation owned by stockholders whose shares do not yield dividends, do not grow in value, are not publicly traded and are widely distributed. Moreover, on those several occasions when the organization faced a financial crisis — in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, before pro football was big business — the community readily responded by quickly buying up new stock issues.

Essentially public property, the Packers have been secured for the generations and to the city. If the corporate types who dominate the NFL had their way, the Packers would have long ago been transferred to a bigger city with a larger population and media market. In the fashionable language of the day, the Pack would have been “privatized.” But, fortunately, there are no profits to be had here. If the Packers’ corporate board ever did make the unimaginable decision to sell the team, all the monies received — estimated to be up to $ 150 million — are required to go to the local Sullivan-Wallen American Legion Post for construction of a war memorial.

Not only the fans appreciate the arrangement. As Packer tight end Keith Jackson put it: “In Green Bay, you’re not playing for some owner you don’t like.” Such words give added meaning to the famous “Lambeau leap”; when a Packer scores a touchdown and jumps into the end-zone seats, he’s really both demonstrating his affection for the fans and sharing his excitement with the team’s owners. After the Packers’ victory in the NFC championship game, Green Bay fans didn’t pour onto the field but warmly welcomed the players into the stands.

Compare this to the Patriots, a much newer organization (founded in the early ’60s) whose existence has been characterized by acquisition and takeovers. Originally based in Boston, the Patriot organization abandoned the city for a place called Foxboro that has no community identity to speak of. Until 1994, the team had never had a season in which it sold out every game. The owners have treated the team more as a prop for their own egos than as a communal enterprise that brings people together. Nor should one forget the Patriots’ episode of corporate sleaze: the locker-room harassment in 1990 of sports reporter Lisa Olson. Then-owner Victor Kiam responded to Olson’s lawsuit with a dismissive press conference in which he ridiculed her. (He later apologized to her and settled out of court.)

Bob Kraft, the current Patriots owner, seems a cut above his arrogant predecessor, but even he, in pursuit of a new stadium (whose construction he says he will pay for), is demanding free land on the Boston waterfront. If the local government doesn’t knuckle under to his demands, he hints he’ll move the team to Providence, R.I. It is a quintessentially ’90s power play: selling out the loyalty of the public for the benefit of the bottom line. Of course, by the logic of today’s market mania, to do anything else would be positively un-Patriotic.

The Packers may not actually be “America’s team” — in a diverse nation such as ours, who has the right to make such a claim? But they are, in the truest sense, the “people’s team” and, especially given their renewed success, their ownership structure might well serve as a model for cities across the nation as they confront the greed and power of corporations.

Second: “The Green Bay Packers: Of the People, By the People, For the People” (2011)

You’ve no doubt heard that the Green Bay Packers won the XLV Super Bowl. And you’ve no doubt heard that Green Bay is the smallest city with a major sports franchise. But have you heard — in this age of global corporations and private greed — that the Green Bay Packers are essentially a community-owned team, the stockholders of which number in the tens of thousands and receive no dividends on their stock? Moreover, we would have it no other way!

From the beginning, the team has been a community enterprise — and whenever the citizens of Northeast Wisconsin have had to pitch in we have done so. In the early days, to keep the players uniformed and happy, we did so by passing the hat and relying on the better off to pitch in more. On later occasions, we did so by buying “shares” to keep the team in Green Bay and thereby block NFL desires to move the franchise to some bigger urban center. And about a decade ago, when we needed to build a new stadium, we did so by taxing ourselves a little extra.

Green Bay is a city of 100,000 with a metro area of 275,000. It’s a city of meat packers, cheese makers, and paper workers; a city of Anglo, German, Belgian, Polish, Mexican, Hmong, and Oneidan Americans, along with a growing African-American population; a city of mostly Catholic and Lutheran folk but with a historic Jewish community; a city of working people’s taverns and summer baseball and softball leagues. It sustains, with the help of NFL salary caps and revenue-sharing arrangements, one of the greatest sports traditions in the nation. Indeed, the little city of Green Bay, whose greatest divide has often seemed a matter of which side of the north-flowing and Great Lakes feeding Fox River you lived on, enabled Italian-American Vince Lombardi — a man who spoke his mind, pushed his team, and loved the game of football and those who played it — to become America’s iconic sports coach and who in turn helped to make Green Bay nothing less than “Titletown.”

I often joke that I came to Green Bay to teach but stayed to “back the Pack.” But there’s some real truth to it. As I have written in “All that is Solid Melts into Air” (reprinted in my 1997 book “Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History?“), growing up in the New York area I was a fanatic Dodgers fan – that is, until the owners ripped the team out of Brooklyn and shipped it off Los Angeles. As a consequence of which I not only became suspicious of southern California and capitalism, but also vowed to never root for a professional sports team again. However, arriving in Green Bay in the late 1970s, I broke my vow. How could I help but do so? I had come to a city where the people own the team — a city where no corporate mogul can make off with the team to milder and richer climes.

I lost my voice watching the game last night at Titletown Brewing — a loss exacerbated by cheering the fireworks that the city set off along the riverfront to celebrate the victory and by yelling “Go Pack Go!” with my fellow citizens. But however sore my throat is today, I feel great about and proud of our victory.

No doubt our new Republican and Tea Party-backed governor, Scott Walker, will declare that the win attests to the wonders of Wisconsin, small town values, and free enterprise. But I say it’s a victory for the working people of Green Bay who hold onto their team dearly and democratically. Or as Abe Lincoln would have put it: “The Green Bay Packers: of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.

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