I am not a New Orleans Saints fan. At least not a die-hard one. The last time I counted myself as one, Bobby Hebert was handing the ball off to Rueben Mayes and Pat Swilling and Sam Mills (may he rest in peace) were dominating on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, I was thrilled when Aaron Brooks led them to their first playoff win in 2000, and as I was in Arizona at the time, I felt a small sense of pride in being from Louisiana and watching “our team” collect its first win in the NFL playoffs. No bandwagoner, I, I didn’t run out and buy an Aaron Brooks jersey, talk noise to Cardinals fans, or anything of the like. I smiled, called my brother, and that about wrapped it up.
The Super Bowl run the Saints accomplished this year elicited the same reaction in me. Sure, as they started 13-0, it drew my interest, but so did the Colts, and so does every team that starts the year off rattling off 10 or more wins. Frankly, I’ll pull for any team to go undefeated and win the Super Bowl just so Mercury Morris will give it a rest. I’d seen the Saints play several times this year, once brilliantly against the New England Patriots (I’ve never seen Belichick dismantled) and several times uninspiringly, particularly in the early season against Miami, and late in the season against Carolina and Tampa Bay (the Panthers, a .500 team, and the Bucs, whose win against the Saints may have saved Raheem Morris’ job). I watched them play in the NFC Championship, and thought Minnesota the better team, though, I gained tremendous respect for how the Saints attacked Adrian Peterson’s weakness (hard to imagine that an elite runningback would have that much trouble holding on to the dang ball) and secretly delighted in how badly they beat up Brett Favre (bet he still doesn’t retire). I thought the Super Bowl would be a close match, and that if Dwight Freeney had been healthy, it would have been a much different game (because I think Jermon Bushrod might be the worst left tackle in the NFL). But it was a great game, New Orleans made the most plays, and deserved the championship.
But here’s why the win was bittersweet, die-hard fan, or not. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson attempted to convert a crisis into a financial opportunity. Forced to play his home games away from New Orleans in Baton Rouge and eventually San Antonio, rumors abounded that Benson was seriously considering moving the team. In fact after a loss to the Miami Dolphins, amid rumors that he was relocating the team (the San Antonio Saints? Really?) he confronted and was confronted by angry, betrayed fans. Benson said he would never go back. Comparably, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, relegated, much like Benson to a somewhat dilapidated venue (the Metrodome), threatened to shop the team to Los Angeles after the 2010 season, and only their loss in the NFC Championship game prevented him from following through. Surely, Benson will not dare shop a World Champion franchise. But commanding more concessions to keep the team in New Orleans certainly does not seem beneath him, and these concessions are likely to come on the backs of Louisiana’s taxpayers (I mean, he’s done it before) at a time when Governor Jindal is cutting education, health care, unemployment benefits and social services left, right, and down the middle (and for a time, even postured about not accepting federal stimulus funding). More concessions to keep the Saints in Louisiana are not good for the state, no matter how good this may make us feel in the immediate future (as of February 15th, the post-Super Bowl party continues through Mardi Gras). And while I am only a casual fan of the New Orleans Saints, I am a die-hard fan of the State of Louisiana.
I’ll admit that I shortsightedly quipped, a few weeks ago, that it didn’t matter to me who won the Super Bowl. That there were more important things to consider, more important heroes to root for. I was ridiculed roundly in my close circle of friends and co-workers, labeled as much as a traitor for not somnambulistically endorsing the Saints’ Super Bowl run. While I contend that I do not owe the Saints my loyalty and fanaticism because of my place of birth (I’m just not a huge fan of sports – I enjoy them, but refuse to let my day or week be ruined by a team’s performance) I failed to recognize the true power and importance of this game, and more importantly, of this win. I think levees need to be repaired in New Orleans. I think developers need to stop gentrifying historic and culturally important neighborhoods. I think displaced citizens who want to return to their homes need to be given the chance to do so, and I think schools and neighborhoods need to be rebuilt. I think if those things were to happen in the next decade that the Saints’ Super Bowl championship would literally be the least important item in this list to be achieved.
But these items aren’t unrelated. New Orleans is a beautiful, strong, amazing town. The birthplace of jazz and a mecca of French, Creole, and African-American culture. Add to that: Home of the NFL Super Bowl Champions. And if this is the latest means by which New Orleans, and New Orleanians in the diaspora, draw inspiration, so be it. And if this made the world fall in love with New Orleans all over again, rather than simply feel sorry for it, then all the better. And whether the hero that New Orleans’ youth choose to follow into its greater future be Mitch Landrieu or Louisiana native and Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter; Wynton Marsalis or Reggie Bush, so long as they have a hero to follow, it beats the hell out of abject despair. Hell, if the fierce winds of Katrina have been momentarily forgotten because of 20 weeks of a really cool Brees, then maybe this championship was the perfect tonic.
A reminder of what was. An indication of what could be. A soundtrack of a revolution to come.
Who Dat, indeed.