Down And Distance
On the Green Bay Packers, being crazy rich, and the difference between winningand cheating
Driving to Lambeau Field is a weird experience. Most NFL stadiums are either in the heart of a city, or in the middle of nowhere; like Jerry Jones’ monument to his own mortality in Arlington. Even Reliant Stadium, which is in a weird part of Houston next to the Astrodome, still feels like it’s part of a city. But Lambeau feels like it is a city. Across the street is a residential neighborhood, full of modest midwestern houses owned by people whose landscaping is dedicated Packers-chic, and next door, on the west side of the stadium, is a K-Mart. As far as opulence goes, it’s rather on the understated side.
That's where I was early Tuesday morning. While Michael Bloomberg was getting ready to send in the NYPD with military-level precision to evict Occupy Wall Street from Zucotti Park, I was in Green Bay, Wisconsin as thousands of Packers fans were still occupying Lambeau Field and chanting "Go Pack Go" loudly enough that the sound bled through the wall of a hotel two blocks away from the stadium.
That sounds like a frivolous comparison to make, but the circumstances of my trip to Lambeau Field for the Monday Night Football matchup against the Minnesota Vikings had the sharp distinction between the 99% and the other 1% on my mind.
The Vikings! United! Can Never Be Defeated!
I grew up in a town in Indiana not too different from Green Bay, though its proximity to Chicago means the Packers are forever my hated enemy. That didn’t stop my friend J, who grew up there with me, from becoming a devoted fan of the Packers, and when I ran into him last month, he made me an offer.
"You have to come up for the weekend of November 13th, he said to me. We have the Ultimate NFL North Weekend planned." You could hear the capital letters. "The Bears are playing the Lions at Soldier Field, and then the Packers host the Vikings at Lambeau on Monday night."
As it happened, I had already made plans to take my Mom to Soldier Field for the Bears game, but I quickly accepted the invitation to make the trip to Green Bay. Two of my team’s most hated rivals on Monday Night Football? Who could say no?
This is how it is sometimes with old friends. Years pass between seeing each other and you pick up immediately where you left off; talking about people you both grew up with, football, and the super-rich—a group whose ranks J had recently joined.
The super-rich are not like us, apparently
When I see J, we don’t usually spend much time talking about money. I am a freelance writer, and he recently oversaw the sale of the company he co-founded for a sum great enough to, say, buy outright ownership of any team in the NFL except for the Cowboys, Redskins, or Patriots. We don’t usually talk about money, but it was on his mind last month.
"No one deserves this much money," he said thoughtfully in the midst of a conversation that had previously been spent making fun of Philip Rivers. "No one really earns this much. I worked hard, but not harder than most other people. I’m smart, but not smarter than everybody else. So much of it is luck," he said.
That’s the only sane response, of course. We both come from the same rusty Indiana region full of people whose parents or grandparents worked in steel mills, and no one from that place would dare suggest that those people didn’t work hard, or that they were stupid. "So why me?," he wondered.
"There’s a club of people who are super-rich," he explained. "It’s actually true. I have access to anybody now. If I wanted to, I could sit down with Barack Obama this month." He wasn’t bragging, though it looks like that in print—he was confused. This is a Midwestern guy who found himself in a place that seemed wrong, like it shouldn’t exist, for him or anybody else. He explained that other super-rich people start doing things like inviting you to do things like ride on private jets, offering you opportunities that don’t exist for the vast majority of us.
Most of the fans at Lambeau Field probably flew commercial
When people throw about terms like "class warfare," or suggest that the people who were evicted from Zucotti Park—the ones we’ll still refer to as Occupy Wall Street—are "anti-capitalism," they’re reading from the wrong script.
J, who made his money by starting a company that made things that people wanted, sold an awful lot of those things and hired people to make more of those things—he isn’t the person people are mad at.
That struck me, as a Bears fan, while watching Aaron Rodgers steamroll the Vikings defense to the tune of a 45-7 blowout. Because as much as I want to hate Rodgers, I have to acknowledge that he’s got it right. He wins by doing hard work and making good throws to talented receivers. I’ve hated Packers players and Packers teams before, but I can’t truly hate the 2011 version as captained by Aaron Rodgers. They earn their wins.
And that’s where people who accuse Occupy Wall Street of fomenting class warfare, or other campaign-season bullshit, have it wrong. The person I’ve heard talk the most about how broken the system is that allowed my friend J to get rich, is J himself. For most of us, there’s a difference between that kind of success, and the vast wealth accumulated by people on Wall Street who did so by buying, selling and trading imaginary financial instruments, occasionally fraudulently, rather than creating things of value to anyone else.
Speaking as a Bears fan, it’s roughly the same difference as watching a guy like Clay Matthews of the 2011 Packers get to the quarterback and make clean hits, and watching Charles Martin of the 1986 Packers bodyslam Jim McMahon ten seconds after the play is over. One helps you recognize the greatness of competition and the value of people who work hard. The other makes the whole game look like a depressing sham that favors cheaters.
The pundits and the politicians are going to ramp back up their "class warfare" rhetoric before long. It’s to their benefit to make the dirty plays seem like clean hits, but even a Bears fan sitting in the bleachers at Lambeau can see the difference.