By: John Gard, Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker
“The present is not on speaking terms with the past,” author Michael Lewis in the book “Coach.”
Twenty years ago, I agreed to author state legislation to renovate Lambeau Field allowing the Green Bay Packers to ask the voters of Brown County to solidify the future of the franchise for the next generation and beyond.
My interest was piqued when I read the recent Press Gazette story- “Twenty years later, Lambeau Field tax still pays dividends.” (October 15, 2020)
On September 12th, 2000, after months of community and neighborhood debate, voters narrowly supported authorizing the use of their tax dollars to renovate Lambeau Field and build a competitive, bright new future for our beloved NFL franchise. I was there every single step of the way.
The passion and emotion of both negative and positive discussions and experiences I participated in during the referendum is permanently seared into my memory. Decent and good people felt strongly on both sides and even households were divided on the vote. An indelible mark was left in my heart about what the Packers meant to even the most ardent opponent of the referendum.
I talked with many people in their front yards and never doubted that the Packers- as a franchise- provided a level of joy in their life. I spent early mornings standing outside of paper mills with Bob Harlan shaking hands, looking people in the eye and asking for their support. It was as true an American expression of retail politics as you can find.
The team was an outlet to get beyond the daily stresses of life. They provided a renewed sense of hope every summer and fall about life in general, not just football. The Packers were one of the few things that united different people from multiple walks of life. We got to meet and cheer for a country boy from Mississippi, to a preacher from Tennessee and a guy with an infectious smile and relentless heart from Alcorn State.
The Packers brought us together and allowed each of us to broaden our horizons and allow us to grow together. Winning helped but; in deference to an old “Lombardi-ism”, it wasn’t the only thing. We all did our part regardless. The team was 0-2 that fall heading into that referendum.
In the end, the voters put their trust and support behind a proposal that would benefit the greater good for future generations even though they would be required to pay part of the cost. We kept our word and when the bills were paid, the tax was ended. A truly Packer fan type of thing to do.
At the time, I was repeatedly pushed by fellow lawmakers to delay the referendum a year and move it out of an election year. I chose to keep pushing for a September 2000 vote and again learned a valuable lesson in staying the course and getting things done.
One year after the referendum, our nation witnessed the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 and the world changed forever. If we had delayed a year, that historic September 11th would’ve been the referendum date and I believe Packer history would be much different.
When our beloved Packers ran out onto the field the first Monday Night Football game after 9/11, they ran out carrying our American flag. It unified us, captured our nation’s hearts and was another part of the healing process.
As just another lifelong Packer fan, I have been so proud of the franchise for honoring our flag, our nation and our veterans as long as I can remember. The large flag at midfield pre-game, the countless American Veterans that have been honored, the flyovers by our service members- is all built into the fabric of what professional football meant in Green Bay. We knew the fans around us may not agree on things outside of that stadium but the flag, the flyovers and the National Anthem were part of the fabric of the game.
Suddenly, it is all gone. I sense it is never coming back.
The honor, the pride, the unity and the tradition of the green and the gold and the Red, White and Blue will, I fear, never be the same.
America is not perfect and God knows I’m not. However, we have come a long way as Americans from an imperfect past and embrace the struggle to keep getting better. We all strive for improvement in our personal lives and to make our nation a better place for our children. Yet, through it all, our country and our people have built the foundation which provides a setting for professional sports in the first place. This foundation with its room for growth materially, economically and spiritually is not the norm and in fact exists in few other places.
The tradition of our National Anthem being played at sporting events began at a time of great national sorrow and often helped unite us in many simple ways.
Based on the choices they have made; I must wonder if the franchise still values or understands many of the people in their fan base. The choice to hide in the locker room from the National Anthem and embrace an entire new view of its significance in our nation’s story and our sporting heritage is baffling to me.
I am convinced of one thing for sure- this would never have happened before that referendum vote. There is simply no way a franchise would ever have alienated this many fans when their financial future was on the line. Packer board members wouldn’t have struggled so hard to find their voice and team leadership would never have become so indifferent.
Now that the stadium has been renovated, the “non-shared” revenue streams and the surrounding economic pieces of the puzzle are in place, it has become a different relationship with many of us. We aren’t as necessary and the money will keep coming in.
Were the previous shows of American pride simple PR stunts? Were pregame flyovers timed with the National Anthem just a sideshow like dogs catching Frisbees at halftime? It sure makes me wonder, but mostly it just makes me sad.
We have cheered for many terrific young men who have given everything they have to play football for the Packers and bring joy to us fans. Many of them have come from difficult childhoods and neighborhoods and have experienced situations that I for one can’t fully appreciate. I admire what it took for these young men to overcome so much to rise to such a rare level of excellence.
Many of these young men have given incredible amounts of time, talent and resources to help those in need among us. When they speak, I want to listen and try to understand the things they see from their own personal experience.
At the same time, completely embracing the narrative and philosophy promoted by a former NFL quarterback who wore socks depicting police as pigs during an NFL game is a choice that will damage the franchise for years to come.
There is a sense of distance that has been created between the NFL owners, management, players with many fans. It’s as if they got what they needed and now we just don’t matter as much. This is particularly ironic in Green Bay where, uniquely these owners are us.
The Covid pandemic has created incredible financial stress for many including sports teams from high school to the pro’s. The fact that it has prevented fans from coming to the stadium to watch Packer games has likely blunted or concealed the reaction of many regular folks who have filled those seats forever as the team hides from the National Anthem and the flag.
In the book, Flags of our Fathers, one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers- Wisconsinite “Doc” John Bradley is quoted, “I saw some guys struggling with a pole and I just jumped in to lend them a hand. It’s as simple as that.” The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima happened in the middle of a battle that saw approximately 7,000 Americans lose their lives and left 20,000 more wounded. These men knew the significance of the flag then and what it stood for.
Those moments of incredible trial and tribulation are marked throughout our American history. The flag, the Anthem and what unites us has always been stronger than what divides us.
Until now. Now it appears that it is just for the great unwashed from flyover country- the lowly fan that believes standing for the National Anthem is an act of decency and unity.
Regardless of the path ahead, the choices the Packers have made this season will permanently impact how some people view our National Anthem and our flag. The Packers have green-lighted indifference.
I know it isn’t politically correct to speak out on these subjects. I expect to experience some of the same vitriol and negativity I received from others when I stood up publicly, led the political battle for the stadium project and agreed to author the legislation that helped pave a strong financial future for the Packers.
I chose to speak out and act at that time because I believed the future of the franchise was at stake. I am convinced if the actions being taken now were taken 20 years ago, we would all be part of a much different story.
Former Assembly Speaker John Gard, authored Wisconsin Act 167 in 2000 known as the Lambeau Field Renovation Act. John lives out the outskirts of Green Bay.