The fan-controlled Packers remain an antidote to the grimy world of NFL owners

Let’s review some recent NFL highlights, not on the field, but by billionaire owners: Washington’s Dan Snyder – who has overseen years of losing records and high coaching turnover, while fighting to keep the team’s racist name – faces mounting pressure to sell in the wake of sexual harassment revelations. He has responded by suing the whistleblower, just as he has sued critical journalists and recession-stricken ticket-holders in the past. The New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft is in hot water over a visit to a massage parlor in 2019. Sometime Jets owner Woody Johnson – a Trump supporter-turned inexperienced diplomat – asked the State Department to hide its investigation of workplace harassment claims against him, while attempting to use his government post to steer business to the president’s companies. The reports of malfeasance come on the heels of his history of tax avoidance. Yet improbably, I have something in common with these men: we are all NFL owners.

The Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned team in US professional sports. From its early years a century ago, the team has belonged not to a tycoon but to the people of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and their descendants as a non-profit corporation. Like my brother, sister, father, aunt, uncles and cousins, I inherited shares in the Green Bay Packers from my great-grandfather, Packers Hall of Famer Jerry Atkinson. Our family called him Poppy.

Unlike other stocks, Packers shares are not available to trade on Wall Street, do not pay dividends, and do not fluctuate in value based on performance. There have been only five public offerings of team shares over the past century, and outside of direct purchase during these periods, buying or selling of shares is forbidden. The only way to pass shares from one owner to another is within an immediate family. No one may amass more than 4% of team shares. This structure has kept the team in the town of Green Bay, the smallest market in all of North American sports. The Packers will never have to contend with an Art Modell or Dean Spanos, who moved beloved teams from their homes to cities where they had no fans at all.

Packers shareholders elect a board of directors, and the directors’ executive committee decides matters that would normally fall on a team owner. The current 45-person board includes six former players and a local tribal leader – as well as Marcia M Anderson, the first Black woman to be a US army major-general, and Valerie Daniels-Carter, a Black entrepreneur-turned business legend. About one in four board members are women; about one in six are Black. It’s not enough for a team that leads the NFL in female fans and is made up of roughly two-thirds Black players, but in a league without a single Black controlling team owner, a seat at the table is a place to start.

Former players at that table might be most important of all. The league’s wealthy, conservative owners are notoriously intolerant of player dissent, and impervious to player welfare. I can’t forget late Texans owner Bob McNair’s panicked assertion that with players kneeling to protest police violence, the NFL had “the inmates running the prison.”

McNair’s comments were was especially chilling given the NFL’s racial dynamics, and that football far too often destroys players’ lives. The NFL has paid out settlements to thousands of players’ families for CTE, which has repeatedly led to suicide and other violence, addiction and sometimes homelessness. With players in their leadership ranks, the Packers are investing in technology to diagnose concussions on the field, enabling a swift response. The Packers’ current president, Mark Murphy, is the only current team leader in league ownership meetings to have played professional football himself. He was released by Washington after his standout 1983 season, likely for his role in representing striking players. He remained unsigned thereafter, foreshadowing the consequence Colin Kaepernick would face after his own acts of protest – in his case as a Black man standing up for Black life. As long as their teams make money from TV revenue-sharing, most owners have little incentive to heed their players’ voices, but Murphy has been on the other side.

Fans brave freezing temperatures to support the Packers in 1967
Fans brave freezing temperatures to support the Packers in 1967. Photograph: Uncredited/AP

After all, a player founded the team: Curly Lambeau, a high school football star and the son of Belgian immigrants, started the squad in 1919 while working at Acme Packing Co. The NFL had yet to begin. But with tickets the only income source, all it took was a few rained-out games to land the team in debt, so Lambeau and colleagues hatched the plan to sell shares. The Packers outplayed big-city teams season after season – and even in the Depression, residents opened their wallets to help, but World War II took a toll. By late 1949, the NFL was merging with a new conference, and the Packers were struggling to stay in the league.

That’s where Poppy came in. He he grew up in Columbus, a stock-boy in local retail. He worked his way up to management and moved his young family to Green Bay, where he ran the town’s main department store. An incorrigible extrovert, Poppy knew everyone in Green Bay. When Lambeau knocked on his door in November 1949, Poppy planned a Thanksgiving intra-team game for Thanksgiving – and a “Packer Backer” breakfast to take place 10 days before the match. At the breakfast, he told the crowd (according to team lore), “We have no angels in Green Bay; we’ve got to get out and work to keep the Packers here.” The attendees agreed to sell tickets and packed the entire stadium, raising over $40,000. The next year Poppy joined the board and helped the team hold a new a stock drive, selling shares at $25 apiece and greatly broadening ownership.

In 1956, Poppy co-chaired the campaign for a bond measure to build a new stadium. It became the first venue built specifically for NFL play, and its star-studded opening put Green Bay on the map. With the project complete, Poppy joined the executive committee, where he served for the next 27 years. His group soon hired the unparalleled Vince Lombardi – and on the coach’s brief watch, the team won its next five titles. Poppy, who had once been a boxer, wore his swollen-knuckled Super Bowl rings for years. When he died, my grandmother scattered his ashes on the home team’s 50-yard line at Lambeau Field.

Under league owners’ rules now, no other team can be non-profit-owned; each must have a controlling family with at least a 30% stake. It seems like a transparent attempt to cordon off an elitist club, and to keep raking in millions while insulated from players and fans. It’s high time to undo this policy.

Poppy’s daughter, my grandma Leanne – the biggest football fanatic I’ve known – divided his stock among her ten grandkids. Like most of the organization’s shareholders, I control less than 1% of the team. But 360,000 owners can’t be wrong, or at least, we can’t be Dan Snyder. There’s diversity in our numbers: take it from this vegan Cheesehead.

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