Piece written as comic relief in Geography 918 seminar (The Geography of Nationalism)
Published with permission of the author by The Nationalism Project

PACKERLAND AS FATHERLAND: The Making of Wisconsin as a Nation, as demonstrated in the Green Bay Packers 1997 Super Bowl Victory

By Zoltan Grossman*

The January 1997 Super Bowl victory by the Green Bay Packers football team has brought widespread attention to Wisconsin from scholars of nations and nationalism. The victory activated a sense of pride and territoriality unmatched by most nationalist movements around the world. The Packers put Wisconsin "on the map" as a unique place. Their locale (Lambeau Field) is a location within the network of the larger (and misnamed) "National" Football League (NFL). The sense of place generated by the victory encompassed the entire territory of the "state" of Wisconsin.

Scholars have come to a consensus that the necessary aspects of nationhood are present in Wisconsin. First, a mythic past in a sacred place is based on the glories of the Vince Lombardi years and the legendary "Ice Bowl." (One scholar, Jennifer Grek, accurately terms this era as a "Green-and-Golden Age.") Second, the 1997 victory dramatized a sense of purpose in the present. Third, the dreams of a new "dynasty" clearly show a sense of a common destiny in the future. The fulfillment of these dreams is episodic and event-driven, but nevertheless maintain a powerful hold on the popular imagination.

Wisconsin citizens now place their primary loyalty in "their" team, rather than in their previous loyalty, toward the United States. A quantitative sampling of vehicles on Wisconsin roads demonstrates that the ratio of green-and-gold bumperstickers to red-white-and-blue flag decals is approximately 157 to 1--over 40 times the 1987 figures. In the same survey, 38 vehicles were counted flying a Packers flag from their window, while zero were counted flying the U.S. flag. This level of consciousness and self-awareness rivals even the most intensely loyal nationalist movements in Europe or Asia in the 1990s. "Packerland" has become "Fatherland," and has become the identity that matters most to most Wisconsinites. Certain individuals may possess multiple identities, though it many cases this may be difficult to ascertain.

This strong identity extends far beyond loyalty to a particular football team, to the creation of a community of belonging**. The kin-based symbology of the "Packer family" constructs a fictive ethnicity based on assumed trustworthiness, as in Anna Simon's studies of Somali clans. An artificially selected pantheon of heros (nearly all of whom are in reality from outside the "homeland") offers salience to the myth. The construction of a Packers Hall of Fame in the geographic epicenter of the myth plays a major role in defining a fictive ethnicity, as Benedict Anderson points out in his study of British colonial museums.

The myth-based identity supplants not only previous ethnic loyalties, but also religious affiliations. What else can be said of a people who would pay $35 for small squares of grass turf from the "sacred space" of Lambeau Field, or display prayers that begin: "Our Favre, who art in Lambeau...."?

One explanation of the hold of the Packer- national myth lies in its mass base. In keeping with Wisconsin's populist traditions, the team is owned not by an individual or corporation, but by The People. Citizens have purchased their own shares, and thousands of other citizens now seek to do the same. The "people's team" originated in Wisconsin, and can never be moved outside its external boundaries. Supporters constantly contrast it to larger, better funded franchises that have done well in recent decades.

These rivalries also have "roots" in Wisconsin history. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, hail from a former slave state whose admission to the Union was later balanced out by the admission of the free state of Wisconsin. The Chicago Bears come from a state that has sent generations of arrogant tourists to establish outposts on Wisconsin soil. In an interactive process, the Packers' 1997 victory has enabled Wisconsinites to overcome their previously subordinant status, and reduce an inferiority complex. The event was internally unifying as well as externally divisive.

The city of Green Bay serves as the ideal pivot point for the awakening of a national spirit based on Wisconsin--a place enclosed by artificially drawn boundaries 150 years ago. (The creation of the state was a necessary prerequisite to the creation of a "fan base" for the team--a city-state would not have sufficed). Green Bay was where European explorers first stepped on primordial Wisconsin soil. Today, the city sits on the nexus between the three main divisions of the state--the Great Lakes industrial region, the Midwestern agricultural region, and the Northwoods tourism/timber region. Wisconsin's main economic products have historically been made in the area,and they have been fully integrated within the national/team concept. These product industries include meatpacking (hence the team name), cheesemaking (hence the headgear), and papermaking (hence the reams of Packer product advertising).

The territorialization of the team-based national identity has extended, however, beyond the immediate place of the Fox River Valley, to Wisconsin as a whole. Ads on many television stations urge citizens to "visit their Packerland Ford dealer." Packers games played elsewhere in the state have helped overcome localism, and have geographically expanded territorial identity (much more so than games played by locally based college teams with the name "Wisconsin"). Wisconsinites have a strong territorial claim, according to the theories of John Coakley, with an overwhelming majority in their "homeland," and with few members living outside its external boundaries. The proof of team/territorial claims can be seen in green-and-gold blocs of cheese "logoized" in the shape of Wisconsin.

Territorialization has another aspect in this context. The very nature of football itself, as George Carlin has pointed out, is to advance and seize territory. Football analogies abounded in generals' "game plans" in both the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Grek has noted the "helmet culture" common to both the military and football. It is not that football's territorial emphasis could lead to nation-based violence, it in fact IS a ritualized form of violence. The only question is how to successfully manage the conflict.

Another necessary prerequisite of a successful national project is outside recognition. This recognition, however, can become a double- edged sword, as a nation could lose part of its sovereignty to larger integrated institutions. Is the propaganda of the Packers as "America's Team," for example, a gesture of respect, or an attempt to reestablish U.S. hegemony? Is the building of other NFL training camps in a so-called "Cheese League" a recognition of Wisconsin's powerful image, or an attempt to prey off of it with a string of foreign bases?

Whatever the level of recognition offered by outsiders, it is clear that Wisconsin is in the process of defining itself as a nation. It has a larger population and land base than dozens of members of the United Nations. The only remaining dilemma is whether it will demand autonomy as a "special status" region within a federal system, or demand national self- determination to the point of secession.

*Who, contrary to the impression created by this essay, does NOT have too much time on his hands.

**Interestingly, this sense of a broader community does not extend to those who could give a damn about pro football.

Zoltan Grossman
Department of Geography, 115D Science Hall,
550 North Parks Street, Madison WI 53706
Tel. (608) 246-2256/265-0532

Member of Wisconsin Cartographers' Guild;
Co-author, Wisconsin's Past and
Present: A Historical Atlas
(University of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

Published with the permission of the author by The Nationalism Project

1999© by Zoltan Grossman, Madison, Wisconsin