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An opinion article by a left-leaning think tank kicked off the National Football League season by positing a provocative theory about the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Sept. 10, 2011 column was written by Scott Keyes of ThinkProgress.org, a website of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The fund, a Washington, D.C. think tank, is run by John Podesta, who served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.
Keyes argued that the NFL is strong partly because it employs what he described as seven progressive policies, such as revenue sharing and a salary cap.
He closed with a bolder statement, declaring:
"Last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, are a socialist organization."
Wait a minute.
Curly Lambeau and Karl Marx kin?
We’ve never heard socialism discussed much by cheese head-wearing tailgaters or the ex-jocks on ESPN.
So, let’s examine the makeup of what some football fans regard as America’s Team and see if Keyes’ claim, which might seem like a Hail Mary pass, scores a touchdown.
Socialism -- at least some form of it -- has a significant history in Wisconsin. In 1910, Milwaukee elected the first Socialist mayor of a major U.S. city and the nation’s first Socialist congressman.
But socialism isn’t easily defined. Merriam-Webster says it advocates "collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and the distribution of goods." Encyclopedia Britannica says socialism "calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources."
The definitions vary enough that, in August 2011, 29 percent of New Jersey registered voters polled by Rutgers University said President Barack Obama is a socialist.
As for what might make the Packers a socialist organization, Keyes asserted in his column that the team has three unique traits: It is community owned, nonprofit and has rules to prevent any individuals from taking control of it.
We asked the 24-year-old Stanford-educated reporter, who hails from Cincinnati Bengals territory, if he wanted to elaborate on his theory. He correctly noted that the Packers’ 112,158 shareholders receive no dividend on their original investment. But he wasn’t quite right when he said they have no voting rights -- they have limited rights, including voting for members of the team’s board of directors.
So, that’s the case made by Keyes.
We posed the question to Jason Wied, the Packers’ vice president of administration/general counsel. He said that, although the team is community owned in the sense that it is owned by shareholders, the shareholders cannot benefit financially in any manner from the team.
"In some way, I suppose we are a blend of the best of the various economic systems/theories -- our structure and system results in a self-sufficient, community-focused enterprise that can’t be bought, sold, or otherwise leveraged for personal gain," Wied said in an email. "Instead, this is an organization whose only business is staying in business. Any profits are reinvested in the organization or given to charity."
So, Wied emphasized that while the Packers are community owned, Packers shareholders cannot benefit tangibly from the team.
That’s different from a socialist enterprise, in which owners or members would expect to receive a share of what that enterprise produces. Beyond the joy of Super Bowl victories and the agony of near-misses, Packers shareholders get little more than the opportunity to buy "exclusive shareholder merchandise" and tours of team facilities as part of the annual shareholder meeting.
Next, we consulted two experts.
University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who teaches about socialism and is president of the American Sociological Society, called Keyes’ claim a "perfectly reasonable characterization." Here are three points he made.
1. Community ownership kept the Packers in Green Bay. Had the team been privately owned in the 1940s and 1950s, when the franchise was in financial jeopardy, profit motive would have led a private owner to move the team to a larger market.
Perhaps. It’s certainly easier for an individual owner to move a franchise than it would be convincing shareholders to approve a move. But shared ownership is only one facet of a socialist organization.
2. Under the team’s bylaws, if the Packers were ever sold, proceeds would go not into someone’s pocket, but to support the Green Bay Packers Foundation, which distributes grants to organizations in Wisconsin.
(Shareholders voted to change the beneficiary -- which had been an American Legion Post in Green Bay -- in 1997. That was the same year they decided to hold the fourth and most recent stock sale in team history, although another is being considered.)
This Packers characteristic is somewhat socialistic -- members of the organization wouldn’t benefit from a sale of the team but, through the foundation, the community at large would.
3. The team is not a capitalist organization because "it doesn’t maximize profits. It’s organized to support the sporting needs of the community."
It’s true that, rather than making an owner more rich, Packer profits support "the community" in that they are reinvested in the team.
But the Packers, like for-profit NFL teams, take advantage of market-driven revenue options such as season ticket seat licenses and upgrading Lambeau Field to make it a year-round tourist destination. In 2011-2012, the Packers generated a franchise-record $282.6 million in revenue and made $12 million in profit from operations. Those gains weren’t made by pursuing socialist principles.
We also spoke to Marquette University law professor Matthew Parlow, whose specialties include sports law. He made three points in stating the Packers are not a socialist organization:
1. Reinvesting profits into the operation makes the Packers not a socialist organization, but simply a nonprofit one.
As we’ve established, the profits certainly are not shared with the shareholders, as they would be in a socialist organization. In that sense, the Packers are like most any nonprofit that seeks to maximize contributions and minimize expenses.
2. The owners of a socialist organization have a significant say in running the organization, but Packers shareholders have virtually none.
Indeed, when it comes to day-to-day operations, Packers shareholders have no say.
3. The members of a socialist enterprise draw benefits from the enterprise, but Packers shareholders can’t sell or otherwise derive benefits from their stock.
After our consultations, we checked back with Keyes.
He acknowledged that, although he’s a football fan, he’s not an expert on the Packers’ form of ownership. He admitted, for example, that he had wrongly assumed that season tickets came with being a shareholder. He said his main point was that the Packers, while "not a perfectly or purely socialist" organization, were far more socialistic than all of the other NFL teams, primarily because they are owned by 112,000 people, not controlled by a single owner.
So, Keyes is moving the goal posts a bit, now characterizing the Packers as more socialistic than other NFL teams, rather than stating flatly that the team is a socialist organization.
Well, did Keyes complete his Hail Mary pass?
The reporter for a left-leaning website said the Green Bay Packers "are a socialist organization." His argument gains some support from the team’s community ownership, nonprofit status and the fact that the team’s assets would go to a charitable foundation if the unthinkable ever happened.
Even a Packers executive acknowledged that the Packers organization is a blend of economic systems.
But the fact that the Packers are different than any other NFL team doesn’t make it a socialist organization. Although it pours profits back into the operation, the team is highly capitalistic in its pursuit of maximum revenue.
Moreover, if the Packers were a socialist organization, its shareholders would have a significant say in running the team and derive tangible benefits from it. But their say is small and the tangible benefits are token.
Upon further review, Keyes’ long pass was completed -- but for a first down, not a touchdown.
We rate his claim Mostly False.
ThinkProgress.org, "Top seven progressive policies that strengthen the National Football League," Sept. 10, 2011
Interview and email interview, ThinkProgress.org reporter Scott Keyes, Sept. 13, 14 and 15, 2011
Wisconsin Historical Society, "Milwaukee Sewer Socialism"
Interview, Green Bay Packers chairman emeritus Bob Harlan, Sept. 13, 2011
Interview, Marquette University law professor Matthew Parlow, Sept. 14, 2011
Interview, University of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor Erik Olin Wright, Sept. 14, 2011
Email interview, Green Bay Packers vice president of administration/
general counsel Jason Wied, Sept. 13, 2011
Rutgers University, news release of New Jersey poll, Aug. 25, 2011
Merriam-Webster.com, socialism definition
Encyclopedia Britannica, socialism definition
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Packers shareholders are all smiles," July 28, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Franchises rose from sandlots to Super Bowl," Feb. 6, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Where the fans and owners are one," Aug. 4, 2009
JSOnline.com, "Timetable for a possible Packers stock sale," Aug. 30, 2011
Packers.com, shareholders page
Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, "Revenue sharing and the salary cap in the NFL," Volume 8, Number 3
National League of Cities, "History’s first mayors"
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