From Beverly Hills to Green Bay, Dodging the Rams

The headlines read, "Football comes back to Los Angeles." They should actually read: "Professional sports comes back to Inglewood." While the return of the Rams to the LA area is good for Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and the Southland in general, congratulations are in order for Inglewood Mayor Jim Butts and his team who have worked so diligently to bring pro football back to the Southland.

While I sympathize with the residents of St. Louis who are distraught at having lost their NFL team, it is completely appropriate for the Rams to fill the two decade NFL void in the region.

Full disclosure: I grew up a Rams fan. I remember Roman Gabriel, the Fearsome Foursome and Dick Enberg's exciting radio calls. I remember George Allen, Billy Truax, Jackie Slater, Rosey Grier's needlepoint, Carroll Rosenbloom and the Embraceable Ewes.

More full disclosure: while I wish the Rams well, and I'm happy they're back in town, I won't be rooting for them. In fact, I probably won't go to any games. That is, unless the Packers are in town.

Yes, that's right: the Green Bay Packers are now my team and that's not going to change whether LA has one or multiple NFL franchises of its own.

Why the Packers?

Well, I could mention that my father was born in Wisconsin, but that wouldn't really be an adequate answer since he was never a Packers fan or even a true fan of any pro sports. The real answer to the question "Why the Packers?" goes way beyond any geographical loyalty or innate love of cheese. I'm a Packers fan because the Green Bay Packers are the American pro sports team which best embodies Community with a capital "C".

Last week the Packers may have been eliminated from the playoffs for the second year in a row in the most heartbreaking of fashions, but despite the heartbreak, they are a team with heart. And, oh, how that matters.

Green Bay is a community-based and a community-owned team. The city of Green Bay has approximately 100,000 residents, so it's only about three times the size of Beverly Hills. It's by far the smallest city in the United States with a major sports team. And there is a reason for that.

It's Community. It's history. It's tradition. It's respect for the game. It's respect for the fans.

The fans of St. Louis are now heartbroken and bitter, just as many of the Los Angeles fans were over two decades ago, when the Rams and the Raiders simultaneously deserted their fan bases. For the fans, a love of the game and their team is about loyalty; for the owners it's a means to maximizing profit.

Yet the effects on a community can be devastating. In Ken Burns's epic documentary, "Baseball," writer George Plimpton, who trained with the Detroit Lions as a quarterback, remarks: "There's a theologian, Michael Novak, who says that a community is better off losing its opera house or its symphony orchestra or its church - here's a theologian speaking - than its ball team."

Just ask St. Louis. Or Seattle. Or Baltimore. Or Brooklyn.

The lone exception to the deceptive notion that teams really give a hoot about their own fans is the Green Bay Packers, the only team which is actually owned by the fans. The Rams may move from St. Louis to Inglewood. They may move again from Inglewood to destination unknown. The Raiders may move to LA, Inglewood, St. Louis or San Antonio. And the Chargers may move back to Los Angeles -- or somewhere else.

But the Green Bay Packers aren't going anywhere. Ever. They belong to and in Green Bay, and in belonging to a small town, they can belong to all of us throughout the nation who believe in community spirit, loyalty, excellence and something beyond simply trying to make a buck. How rare and beautiful a thing: a team which is uniquely and deeply associated with a small town in the Midwest can transcend its provincial roots without ever leaving them, connecting and uniting Packers fans (and owners) across the country in the process. Magical.

Ironically, as logical and exemplary as the ownership structure of the Green Bay Packers is, as much sense as it makes for fans who want to love and support their own teams, as well as connect them to their communities, it is an ownership structure which is banned not only in the NFL but also in other major professional sports in America. (The Green Bay Packers ownership structure has been grandfathered within the NFL).

Why are the American professional sports leagues so afraid of community-based, non-profit ownership? Why aren't they willing to consider a fan-friendly option to billionaire vanity ownership? One would think that the Packers provide a successful model which could and should be adopted by other franchises and which could spare cities the heartbreak of losing a team.

The NFL and the other sports leagues should revisit this prohibition. There is no better way to build and maintain community support - including financial - and to anchor a team within a community than by having community-based ownership. Incidentally, this mirrors the ownership structure of the Australian Football League (Aussie rules). The members, the fans, are the owners of the teams, and that is as it should be. When my son Vincent and I cheer on our Geelong Cats, we know it really is our team, just as the Packers are our team.

Chris Christie, New Jersey's governor, has taken some flak for being a Dallas Cowboys fan. I make no bones about declaring my continuing loyalty to the Green Bay Packers, despite the fact that LA County now has an NFL team. In fact, I'll take this opportunity to thank the city of Green Bay for sharing your Packers with the rest of us cheeseheads, wherever we may be, but whose collective football hearts are in Packerland.

I will continue to root for a fifth Packers Super Bowl victory; I will continue to console my boy when the Packers lose a heartbreaker; and I will continue to look forward to the day when I take him to a football homecoming in a place where neither of us has been: the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

Yes, the NFL is back in LA. Welcome back Rams... and "Go, Pack, Go!"