The twelfth man

I’m writing this from Seattle, where I’m in the middle of an unplanned, eight-day trip to do a good deed of sorts.  

Not that I’m claiming points for self-sacrifice or nobility.   The help I’m rendering is hardly arduous, and it’s the sort of work I enjoy.

Besides, I like Seattle.  It’s set in an exceptionally pretty part of the world – lots of hills and water views.  It’s a city of bookshops, coffee shops and interesting little restaurants.  And the people are friendly enough.  

In January, Seattle is cloudy and drizzly, but when I left Virginia, temperatures hadn’t reached 20-degrees in several days.  I hear it’s gotten warmer since, but on the whole, I’ll take cool and drizzle over alternating ice-storms and mud.

In Seattle, it’s impossible to ignore the popularity of the local NFL team, the Seahawks.  Virginians might have difficulty with this concept, but the NFL season doesn’t inevitably end in December – amidst rumors, press leaks, and firings.  Seattle’s team played and won Saturday, and is now one win away from going to the Super Bowl.  

Seattle is famous for its “Twelfth Man” – the football term for a loud and supportive home-field crowd.   Seattle’s “Twelfth Man” is notorious.  CenturyLink Field was specifically designed with acoustics which amplify crowd noise, so much so that – on several occasions – earthquake monitors have recorded small seismic events at critical moments of Seahawks games.     

Contrast this with the sound familiar to fans of the Washington Redskins – a sort of high-pitched whistle as the air goes out of another season of hopes and dreams.

Now, to be sure, I realize that professional football – like all professional sports – is mainly entertainment.  The world does not turn on the outcome of a contest between two groups of huge, muscular millionaires who – in twelve to fifteen minutes  of actual activity spread over three-and-a-half hours – play a steroidal version of an old college game.

Still, football – like other big-time sports – can have a powerful impact on the spirit of a region.  Sports have civic impact, and that makes them – in a sense – important.

The problem is that, in America, sports teams – like too many important institutions - are privately owned by extremely wealthy corporate types, often with limited commitment to the greater community.  

I haven’t really followed the Redskins since Eddie Lebaron was their quarterback – but you’d have to live in a cave to miss the steady grumble of local fans over the conduct of the team’s ownership.  Increasing numbers of local fans have begun saying, with a sigh, that the ‘Skins will never return to championship form until they have new ownership.  

And my question is this:  Why shouldn’t this be possible?

Why shouldn’t a community – acting as a community – be able to depose bad team owners and replace them with community ownership?

It’s a serious question.

What I propose today is what I’d call the “Lambeau Law” – named for E. L. “Curly” Lambeau, founder of the Green Bay Packers, the only NFL team actually owned by its community.  

Green Bay’s story is remarkable.  The Packers have been a community-owned team since 1923.  Today, the Packers have over 360,000 stockholders, holding 5 million shares.  

Owning stock in the Packers is not about profit.  No stockholder receives a dividend, and the corporate articles prohibit anyone from holding more than 200,000 shares – which  eliminates the possibility of one dominant shareholder.

Under the Lambeau Law, the citizens of any NFL city or metropolitan area could form a community-owned corporation – on the Green Bay model – to challenge the ownership of the local team.  This corporation could sue – in Federal court – to prove that the existing ownership was conducting its affairs in a manner which failed to serve the community’s interests.  

If the community corporation proved its case, the court would be empowered to compel the existing ownership to sell the franchise – at a fair price – to the community corporation.

Now, I realize that many knee-jerk conservatives will immediately find their blood pressure rising at the thought of forcing a handful of rich, powerful corporate types to divest themselves of a valuable asset – even at a fair price – for the sake of the general welfare.  

Modern America, after all, seems to value private ownership –  even arrogant, ruthless ownership – over the public good.  

But I think it’s time ordinary people started standing up to that sort of arrogance.  

It would be nice to think we’d start by challenging those who abuse corporate power to  contribute to global climate change – or those whose ownership of major media pollute the civic space with falsehoods and distortions.

But perhaps we’re not ready for that.

Perhaps, first, we could to arouse the “twelfth man” to challenge those who abuse their power to make perennial losers of a storied football franchise.

It would be a start.


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