Green Bay Packers’ fans who became owners stand with team

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Packers minority shareholders heed call to lock arms in Thursday's game

More than 360,000 fans own more than 5 million shares of the Green Bay Packers

CNN  — 

Justin Sipla hangs the certificate of the minority share he owns of the Green Bay Packers on the wall of his office instead of his Ph.D. in anatomical sciences.

“That’s all the students need to know about me,” quipped the neuroanatomist who teaches at the University of Iowa’s medical school.

He took the job in 2010 largely because it was in driving distance to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where his team plays.

All NFL teams have diehard fans, but the Packers faithful are unique: Fans own a stake in the team, though they don’t have the same rights as the owners of other teams. More than 360,000 fans own more than 5 million shares in the Packers, the league’s only publicly owned franchise, according to the team’s website.

Some minority shareholders praised the team for locking arms in unity last weekend but took offense to several players on other teams kneeling in response to President Donald Trump’s criticism of players opting to protest during the National Anthem. Still, other shareholders said they will heed the call from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to lock arms with each other in unity during the National Anthem before Thursday’s game against the Chicago Bears, a division rival.

“It will represent a coming together of players who want the same things that all of us do – freedom, equality, tolerance, understanding, and justice for those who have been unjustly treated, discriminated against or otherwise treated unfairly,” the team said in a statement.

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Audrey Birnbaum Young, a shareholder from Atlanta, said while the President was not directly addressing Packers shareholders, she still felt offended as a fan and a part owner when Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem.

“It was absolutely ridiculous for him to insult the owners without considering the fact there are shareholders that are also fans,” the 34-year-old said. “We don’t have the power to be able to fire those players but even if we could, there is no way that we would listen to that.”

Around the league, several players took a knee during games last weekend, including Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs and Von Miller of the Denver Broncos.

But John Downs of Blue Point, New York, says he couldn’t help but think about what soldiers felt when they watched players kneeling during highlights of the game between the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars in London.

The Packers minority owner said he grew aggravated at how disrespectful the protest was to soldiers watching from overseas.

“My thoughts were how were those soldiers feeling,” said Downs, 47, who bought his share in 1997.

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‘Building a football culture’

The Packers organization has offered fans the chance to buy stock five times since 1923, when the team became a publicly owned nonprofit corporation. The last stock offering in 2011 was to pay for renovations to storied Lambeau Field. More than 250,000 shareholders became owners then.

Packers stock is nothing like a real stock. The team has no obligation to buy it back. Shareholders should not expect to receive a profit. Nor do they get any protection from securities laws. Packers bylaws and the NFL also “severely restrict” any stock transfer. Shareholders do get voting privileges.

The stocks were initially sold to help the team in a small market survive and have become a source a pride for minority owners. Multiple family members own stock.

“There is something about the fans of the team coming together to keep this team afloat that has always been in the culture of the Green Bay Packers and their fans,” Sipla said. “We still have that feeling … of participating in something that is building a football culture that we think we sort of are a part of.”

Sipla has only missed two games – wins against the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks last December – because he was hospitalized after a stroke.

Last Sunday, the diehard fan made the five-hour trek to the Packers game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

Members of the Green Bay Packers stand with arms locked as a sign of unity during the national anthem prior to their game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

Sipla said he always stands for the National Anthem but isn’t offended if someone does not “especially if the causes they say they’re doing it for are for reasons of social injustice.”

He was encouraged to see the team lock arms.

“The American flag to me is symbolic of the freedom that is provided to us by the Constitution of the United States of America,” he said. “That means people who want to sit or stand or do something else during any kind of ceremony, as long as it’s peaceful, we have that privilege.”

‘This country needs to lock arms’

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the anthem protests last year when he started kneeling during the National Anthem. Kaepernick has said he refused to honor a song or “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Kaepernick has cited the police shootings of black men as a reason for his silent protest.

Over the weekend, Trump called for NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag.”

Young, who organizes Packers games gatherings at an Atlanta bar, said: “There is no reason why the leader of our country should be able to get away with calling anyone a son of a bitch, let alone someone who is having a peaceful protest.”

“Do I wish that there was a different way the police brutality protests had been brought out? Yes, I do. There’s a lot of other ways [to protest] without offending the veterans of our country.”

But Young, who has friends who played in the NFL and family members who served in the military, said she agreed with how Kaepernick protested.

She said she has “absolutely no problem with the players that took a knee and locked arms.”

“If you ask any one of those players how they feel about the service men and women that have defended our country. I guarantee you not one of them would disrespect our service men and women,” she said.

Kneeling is ‘disrespectful’ to flag, but…

Richard Schoenfeld, of Overland Park, Kansas, said he, too, believed taking a knee was “disrespectful of our flag and what our country stands for.”

The minority shareholder said Packers’ call for fans to lock arms “is an indication that everybody in this country needs to lock arms on a lot things. Not just football.”

Schoenfeld plans to watch Thursday’s game at a local bar with his usual crew of retirees.

They have a routine. A high five with one hand celebrates a field goal. A two-handed high five is like their own touchdown dance.

And if he was at Lambeau Field, Schoenfeld said he would even lock arms with Bear fans.