The Sterling case and the Green Bay Packers

Sam Smith – My weekly appearance on the Mark Thompson Sirius XM Show (Mondays 8pm Channel 127) was entirely occupied last night talking about the Donald Sterling case, mostly in conversation with listeners.

My argument in part was that we gave too much attention to individual incidents like this and not enough to the culture and practices behind them. I noted that, for example, only nine blacks had been elected the Senate since Reconstruction and two of them had been there less than a year, yet the media and the public hardly ever talks about this.

There was also talk about the role of owners in professional sports and the problems involved with them. It occurred to me (although I didn’t mention it) that professional sports owners were actually a role model for the much more powerful contemporary oligarchy we have come to face in America today.

Which led me to turn to Wikipedia to look something up (reporters multitask even on talk shows) and as I was doing so, Mark Thompson said, “What about the Green Bay Packers?”

i was stunned, because that was exactly what I was looking up, and I accused Mark of spying on me through my computer camera.

But here is what I was looking at when Mark asked about the Packers:

In 1960, on at least one team, a color barrier still existed in the NFL.But Jack Vainisi, the Scouting Director for the Packers, and [Vince] Lombardi were determined “to ignore the prejudices then prevalent in most NFL front office in their search for the most talented players.” Lombardi explained his views by saying that he “viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green”….

An interracial relationship between one of the Packer rookies and a young woman was brought to the attention of Lombardi by Packer veterans in his first training camp in Green Bay. The next day at training camp, Lombardi, who had a zero tolerance policy towards racism, responded by warning his team that if any player exhibited prejudice, in any manner, then that player would be thrown off the team. Lombardi, who was vehemently opposed to Jim Crow discrimination, let it be known to all Green Bay establishments that if they did not accommodate his black players equally as well as his white players, then that business would be off-limits to the entire team. Before the start of the 1960 regular season, he instituted a policy that the Packers would only lodge in places that accepted all his players. In the all-white Oneida Golf and Riding Country club in Green Bay, of which Lombardi was a member, Lombardi demanded that he should be allowed to choose a Native American caddy, even if white caddies were available. Lombardi’s view on racial matters was a result of his religious faith and the prejudice he had experienced as an Italian-American.

Lombardi’s unprejudiced attitude was not confined to his players’ race or ethnicity. Lombardi was aware of tight end Jerry Smith’s homosexuality, and upon arriving in Washington, told Smith in confidence that it would never be an issue as long as he was coaching the Redskins. Smith flourished, becoming an integral part of Lombardi’s offense, and was voted a First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career, which was also Lombardi’s only season as Redskin head coach. Lombardi invited other gay players to training camp, and Lombardi would privately hope they would prove they could earn a spot on the team. At the Washington Redskins training camp in 1969, Ray McDonald was a gay player, with sub-par skills, who was trying to make the Redskin roster again, but this time with Lombardi as the Redskins’ new head coach. Lombardi told running back coach, George Dickson, ‘I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him – and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.’

As noted here before, we unintentionally tend to build the celebrity status of the Sterlings, Bundys and Zimmermans of our time while forgetting about the stories that could lead us in a better direction.  A good trick for news editors and journalists would be to put the Sterlings of the world up against a real alternative.

And it’s not just about ethnicity or sexual character. The Sterling story is also about a man whose use of money as a justification for deeply misguided narcissism – like so many in the top of our culture these days – is based on an economic model being foisted upon us by our media and politicians. Here again the Green Bay Packers have something to tell us:

The Packers are the only community-owned franchise in American professional sports major leagues. Typically, a team is owned by one person, partnership, or corporate entity, i.e., a “team owner.” The lack of a dominant owner has been stated as one of the reasons the Packers have never been moved from the city of Green Bay. It has long been operated as a non-profit organization….

In 1950, the Packers held a stock sale to raise money to prevent the team from moving out of Green Bay. No shareholder was allowed to purchase over 200 shares, a safeguard to ensure that no individual could assume control of the club. In 1956, area voters approved the construction of a new city owned stadium…

Shares of Packers stock do not include the same rights traditionally associated with common stock or preferred stock, although the shares are referred to as “common stock” in the offering document. They don’t include equity, dividends, can not be traded, have no securities-law protection, and stock ownership brings no season ticket privileges. While newly purchased shares can be given as gifts, once ownership is established, transfers are technically allowed only between immediate family members. Packers shareholders, however, are entitled to voting rights, an invitation to the corporation’s annual meeting, and the opportunity to purchase exclusive shareholder-only merchandise…

Green Bay is the only team with this form of ownership structure in the NFL; such ownership is in direct violation of current league rules, which stipulate a limit of 32 owners of one team and one of those owners having a minimum 30% stake. However, the Packers corporation was grandfathered when the NFL’s current ownership policy was established in the 1980s, and are thus exempt. The Packers are also the only American major-league sports franchise to release its financial balance sheet every year.

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