I've been a Green Bay Packers fan since 1996, when I was six. I pretended to be Brett Favre in my backyard. I jumped up and down on my couch when Antonio Freeman made his ridiculous catch on that Monday night; I was stunned, maybe reverent, when Favre took the field shortly after his father's death to carve up the Raiders on another fateful Monday night. And I've been on the Aaron Rodgers bandwagon since the day he was picked, and couldn't be happier to see the Packers winning with him at the helm.
The Packers are fun to root for because they're my team and really, really good, certainly, but their unique status as a not-for-profit publicly-owned NFL team makes their existence a stark contrast to the ever richer and higher-stakes world of sports entertainment, and the way that some Packers stood with Wisconsin workers against union-busting efforts by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is a refreshing reminder, whatever your political ideology, that the millionaires playing on Sunday are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world on the rest of the days of the week.
Combine that appealing "The People's Team" ethos with a team good enough to remain undefeated into December, and you have a really great opportunity for the Packers to sell something. And, beginning on Tuesday, they've been selling the rarest thing they can, besides season tickets: pieces of the team. The Packers' stock sale is designed to raise money for capital improvements at Lambeau Field, but it's also a chance to sell Packers fans a piece of paper that certifies their commitment to a team they believe in — often beyond what happens between the sidelines — for the low, low price of $250 per share and a $25 processing fee per transaction.
And so, when rumors of the stock sale broke this fall, I Googled it. A lot. I put a reminder in my phone so I would remember to make sure the sale didn't open each morning. I pestered my fellow Packers fan friends about it, and generally prepared myself to do the "Nintendo SIXTY-FOUUUUUUUUR" routine. I could afford the $275, at least as a present to myself, and as a Packers fan in Florida, I could have a piece of the team that would prove to myself and others that I was a devoted fan.
Then I did something dumb: I read the offering document for the Packers' stock sale (PDF), the equivalent of the terms and conditions every person who has installed any piece of software has clicked through without reading, and I found this passage, a section called NFL Rules. The boldface is mine.
The NFL Rules prohibit conduct by shareholders of NFL member clubs that is detrimental to the NFL, including, among other things, owning a financial interest in any other NFL member club or other professional football organization; loaning money to other NFL member clubs or any player, coach or employee thereof or any football official employed by the NFL; acting as an agent for any NFL player; publicly criticizing any NFL member club or its management, employees or coaches or any football official employed by the NFL; or paying an NFL player or coach. If the Commissioner of the NFL (the "Commissioner") decides that a shareholder of an NFL member club has been guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the NFL then, among other things, the Commissioner has the authority to fine such shareholder in an amount not in excess of $500,000 and/or require such shareholder to sell his or her stock
I have no interest in owning any other NFL team, or loaning money to a player, or serving as an agent, or paying a player or coach. But "publicly criticizing any NFL member club or its management, employees or coaches or any football official employed by the NFL" isn't just a thing I'm interested in doing; it's sort of my job here at SB Nation, and it's a job I enjoy doing. And owning stock in the Packers would seem to abridge my right to free speech.
I can't believe that every Packers shareholder abides by all of those rules, or the one forbidding betting on NFL games in the same section — or that even a majority of them are aware of this stipulation, if the comments at our Packers blog, Acme Packing Company, are any indication. There were 4.75 million shares of Packers stock before the sale, and there could be more than 5.5 million shares by the end of the sale if the team decides to issue more, and that's far too many possible shareholders to credibly believe that none of them have ever booed a referee. The NFL can't go after every shareholder who does, either, because it's rather difficult to figure out exactly who among the tens of thousands of NFL fans that crowd stadiums is doing the booing.
But I don't and can't go to games; I do, can and have to comment on them publicly, with my name attached to the comments. I strive for fairness in my commentary, but I know some of it would cross that line, at least by the letter of the rule. And I'm certainly not trying to get fined half a million dollars for questioning a referee's call.
Like any other Packers fan who wants to be an owner and remain a passionate fan, I have a dilemma: do I forfeit my right to free speech and jeopardize my ability to do my job as well as possible, or do I choose not to buy a piece of the tribe I cherish being a part of like few other things about being a sports fan?
I sent an email to the NFL's PR department on Tuesday asking about that dilemma, but the NFL hasn't responded to those questions. The league has time to get back to me; the Packers' stock sale is set to run through February. But I apparently have to choose between buying into a team I love by purchasing a keepsake I will treasure until I die and maintaining the right to free speech, one I cherish like few other things about being alive and one that enables me to do my job. And I hate that.