The Washington Post January 26, 1997, Sunday, Final Edition
…Take On the Happy Pack
BYLINE: Harvey J. Kaye; Isaac Kramnick
SECTION: OUTLOOK; Pg. C04
DATELINE: GREEN BAY, Wis.
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 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.
Harvey Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. Isaac Kramnick is professor of government at Cornell University.