All too rare is the sporting event that qualifies as a great work of art. And even rarer is the professional sports team that belongs to the public. The transcendent Green Bay Packers have now entered the Pantheon for both.
By way of disclosure, I am a part owner (two shares) of the Packers, which is part of the point. The team, from the tiniest media market in American sports, is owned by the public. Back in 1922, the team hit hard times due to some bad rainouts. To save the franchise, local business leaders established a nonprofit to take up the slack. Nearly a century later, the franchise and the stadium are still owned by the community. Praise be!!!!!
The Packers have been extremely successful, compiling one of the very best records in all major league sports. And they just won as great a football game as anyone has ever seen or could even invent. But more on that after this anti-commercial message:
American professional sports is now a sinkhole of cynical corruption. Except for the Packers, our football, baseball, basketball, and hockey teams are owned almost exclusively by a bunch of Trumpish billionaires. There's Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, whose racist epithets and public jealousies of Magic Johnson were beyond unbearable. And Dan Snyder, current owner of the football team in our nation's capital with the blatantly racist anti-indigenous nickname he has vowed to keep forever. And, there's the management of baseball's Cleveland Indians, who may or may not be phasing out the most vile, racist logo in all of sports.
Worse is the grinding corporate grayness with which these franchises are manipulated as owners manipulate the fans' love for their teams by blackmailing billions in tax breaks, stadium subsidies, and outrageous ticket prices to gouge every last cent they can get.
The most recent travesty involves the double-move of the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles—which would be far better off without either of them. In both cases, decades of loyal hometown fan devotion has counted for nothing. Nor have the billions the host communities have poured into those teams, only to be left holding very large municipal stadiums and other financial bags now absurdly empty.
If those teams had been owned by those towns, like the Packers, this would not be happening.
Of course the NFL cartel HATES the Packers. The combine now has on its books an actual law banning further community ownership of any NFL franchise. But the Packers themselves will not be moving to a bigger media market. Nor will they be enriching some yacht-riding, cognac-guzzling fat cat, or the bottom line of some faceless mega-corp.
Several years ago, the Packers management decided to offer shares in the team for public sale. I snapped up two. There are zero benefits beyond bragging rights and a certificate. No discounts for seats. No dividends. No accretion in value for re-sale. No free dinners with the players.
When I asked the main office about deeding one of my shares to a nephew who wants to be a sportscaster, I was told I could not sell or pass on the shares beyond immediate family.
A few years ago, there was a women's basketball team in Columbus called the Quest. It had a great star named Katie Smith and won the first two championships in its nascent league. But then the team ran out of money. At the second championship game, I begged the owner to sell the franchise to the city. He looked at me like I was a cross between a conspiracy theorist and a Commie terrorist. The league went out of business. Columbus no longer has a professional women's basketball team. Nice work, former Quest owner.
Given the choice, most NFL owners and network moguls would probably love to see the Packers go out of business, out of Green Bay, and into the control of fact cats. But, as a stockholder, I say all major sports teams should be owned by their host communities.
Which gets me to Sunday's game. The Packers began the season with four wins and six losses, having suffered a series of major injuries. They seemed to be going nowhere. But transcendent quarterback Aaron Rodgers predicted the Pack would "run the table" and win all six upcoming games and make the playoffs. It seemed like a throwaway line.
But Rodgers is arguably the sport's greatest quarterback, a terrific passer and an amazing scrambler with a brilliant football mind. He owns the on-field presence of a zen master. He has also been scandal free and signed a petition to recall Wisconsin's right-wing governor Scott Walker.
The Packers did run the table, then won their seventh straight game, beating the New York Giants in the playoff wild card game.
On Sunday, they faced the powerful Dallas Cowboys (13-3 in the regular season), with a brilliant rookie quarterback from Mississippi State and a dominant rookie running back from Ohio State. Dallas has a whole history of its own. That includes the obnoxious marketing assertion that it is "America's Team" even though it’s owned by a highly reactionary corporate elite.
The Packers took an early lead only to have the Cowboys come from behind to tie the game in the final quarter. With just minutes to go, the Packers retook the lead with an astounding 56-yard field goal. The Cowboys then tied the game again with another brilliant drive and not-quite-as-long field goal.
With less than a minute left, it seemed like we were headed for overtime. And the Pack has a sorry history of losing big games at the last minute. On the other hand, Rodgers has a history of pitching high, long "Hail Mary" passes that somehow get caught.
Bottom line: With time for just one play to get in field-goal range, Rodgers rolled left and pitched a perfect right-armed strike thirty-six yards down the sidelines to Jared Cook, who made a spectacular catch that will be forever embedded in NFL lore.
The Packers' kicker, Mason Crosby, then converted another fifty-plus-yard field goal to win the game. Except that the Cowboys called time-out just before he got it off. So he did it a third time!
The Pack now travels to Atlanta, hoping to get to the Super Bowl, to face either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New England Patriots, who are coached by Bill Belichick, the Darth Vader of American football.
Whether or not they win it all this year, the Green Bay Packers are an exemplar for what a professional sports team can be. All these franchises should be publicly owned, so they can stay in places like Green Bay and St. Louis, San Diego and Columbus. Where we home fans have secure community ownership, and can wholeheartedly embrace fantastic triumphs like this amazing run from the fabled Pack.
Harvey Wasserman once played many sports, and was captain of his high school tennis team. Like most former athletes, he finds that the older he gets, the better he was.