This week, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that the US Army Corps of Engineers, and by proxy, the US Government, was indeed culpable for the property damaged caused by the “Federal Flooding” of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. This week also saw a settlement between BP and the private plaintiffs effected by the Gulf Oil Spill, with an expected payout of almost $8 billion to begin immediate disbursement. These events will have an immediate and long term impact on both Louisiana and the United States, yet both were largely ignored in the national news. Instead, the focus was on the New Orleans Saints, and the dual black-eyes of “Bounty-gate,” and Drew Brees’ tumultuous contract negotiations.
I have made a vocation out of defending, advocating, lauding, decrying, mourning, and celebrating New Orleans these past few years. I defend her with the ferocity I would my own child, tirelessly trying to educate and enlighten the masses to the quirky beauty that is the Crescent City; however, I have to admit this is sometimes exhausting. It is hard enough trying to convince people like my parents — who have based their entire understanding of the city on a Bourbon Street Mardi Gras Webcam and a particularly unflattering episode of Sons of Guns — that New Orleans is a crucial cultural and economic engine in America and not just a place to get polluted and see tits. And it becomes exponentially more difficult due to the fact that so many of these wounds are self-inflicted.
New Orleans will never be “America’s City.” It is just too gritty… too… other. It has a circumscribed culture and a ritual nature, a rhythm in its bones, and a hint of five o’clock shadow and stale beer. It is almost always referenced by those outside the fold of having “its best days behind it.” I can’t think of any place I have ever been that is more misunderstood by outsiders — I mean hell, probably 30% of Americans didn’t even think New Orleans was worth rebuilding post-Katrina — or beloved by its residents.
By extension, the Saints will never be “America’s Team.” While the feel-good story of a Super Bowl win and multiple redemptions was compelling, it resonated mostly among the converted; because all the enigma that is New Orleans is also the riddle that is the New Orleans Saints, a franchise so historically bad that fans wore bags over their heads and called their team the Aints. A franchise with suspect ownership and a less-than-inspiring front office, whose fans felt reasonably secure in the knowledge that they would most likely never win a championship. A team and fan base that even post-Katrina was still viciously taunted by opposing fans and vile signs about “finishing the job” of Katrina. Yet the fans never abandoned the team, and the Protean populace that can turn a funeral into a jazz concert were rewarded for their loyalty with a Lombardi trophy. The Drew Brees led Saints, assembled by Mickey Loomis, and coached up by Sean Payton and Greg Williams reached the top of the mountain in 2010, somewhere New Orleans probably hadn’t been since the 1840’s, the destinies of a city and their team forever entwined like Mardi Gras beads and the oaks on Saint Charles Avenue.
So while the real stories might have been about the levees and the oil spill, I understand why all anyone wants to talk about are bounties and Brees: because no city and team have a more inextirpable bond than New Orleans and the Saints. Thus, a city that was recently basking in the glow of a championship team and celebrating the season of its record-setting quarterback is now reeling, as uncertain of its team’s future as it was of its city’s six years earlier.
To make matters worse, the national sports media (read ESPN), typically indifferent (disrespectful, some would say) to the small market Saints and Brees, are covering both stories with the kind of Puritanical zeal that only a self-righteous New England-based sports network could. How could the Saints franchise Brees? Do they have any respect for the man that saved sports in their city? Are the Saints really sinners after all, and shouldn’t they be punished accordingly? If you think Spy-gate was bad, you should see what they are doing in New Orleans — it’s time to make an example out of someone, right Commissioner Goodell?
Suddenly the Saints have become the piñata of the NFL, and everyone is taking a whack; and in response, Saints fans have circled the wagons, almost to the point of being irrational. Ride or die. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.
What is most distressing, however, is the equivocation on the part of some fans. The two common rejoinders in regards to the bounty scandal and Brees’ contract, respectively, are “Everybody’s doing it, we just got caught,” and “Just pay him whatever he wants.” While on the surface (and even in my heart) I can understand the sentiments, I cannot agree with the accompanying logic in either case, and with WhoDat nation under siege, somehow these two separate issues were conflated into “Us against the world.”
Whether or not bounties are commonplace, or even relevant, is not the point. The point is that it is unseemly. The point is it is unnecessary — football is violent enough as it is. The point is that they were asked to stop by both the Commissioner’s Office and ownership, and flouted the order. You cannot have your front office and coaching staff complicit and not suffer the consequences. It is the coverup that always gets you, not the crime. I think most Saints fan realize this, and expected more from Payton, Loomis, and the now departed Williams. I think most Saint fans are better than this; I think the Saints are better than this; and I know that the city of New Orleans is better than this.
It’s why I adopted it in the first place, although, in truth, it adopted me. Just like it adopted a quarterback named Drew Brees, fresh off the scrap heap in 2006, because the city and the franchise saved Brees first, and he returned the favor, and now they will be forever mentioned in the same breath. Drew Brees will always be a Saint, but he is not the only member of the Saints. Nor do I think the Saints made him an insulting offer before franchising him (which, btw does not preclude them from working out a long term deal). In fact, the deal offered averaged out to $18million a season, the same amount as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s contracts, respectively — two pretty good quarterbacks. In fact, I think the Saints were trying to structure a deal that would not only be fair to Brees, but help him keep either Nicks or Colston in the fold as well. While it might feel right for some fans to just say “pay him whatever he wants,” if it decimates the team in the long run, is that really the right decision? There must be a middle ground. The Saints have worked too damn hard to become relevant to make a bad deal, especially in light of the draft picks they will probably lose due to “Bounty-gate.” Even as someone who almost always sides with the players, I recognize this, and I wonder why more fans don’t. As much as I love Drew, he doesn’t play every position. Thus, it is critical for the Saints to have enough money to sign other key players before the window closes on the Brees era. As it stands now, with Brees “franchised,” no one is happy, and it didn’t have to be this way. Certainly loyalty and devotion should be rewarded, but it should be remembered that in this case, it is a two way street.
New Orleans is finally starting to heal, and to receive just compensation (if there can ever really be just compensation) for the horrors of the levee breaches and the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Thus, it is ironic that its greatest source of recent pride, the Saints, is being pilloried in the press. It goes to show you how little “they” still know about “us.” And the fact of the matter is, they probably never will, and it isn’t particularly important if they do. This isn’t about them and their petty screeds, this is about us, and always has been. We are not what they think, and never have been. We are better than that, and need to start acting like it.
–Today, March 4th, while working on this piece, my wife’s Uncle, Chuck Mungovan, passed away. Chuck lost his house in Gentilly during Katrina, and while he lived long enough to see the Saints win the Super Bowl, he didn’t live long enough to see his insurance company settle his claim. Maybe the ruling by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals will help others like him, and if anything, it illustrates just how far New Orleans has to go, and the continuing psychological and physical tolls inflicted by Katrina.
Chuck was like a father to my wife, and helped raise her following her parents’ divorce. We were fortunate to have lunch with Chuck before he passed, at the Chimes in Covington. He ordered his favorite, a roast beef po boy, dressed. That was a week ago today. During that lunch Chuck expressed how much he liked my writing. He was an avid reader, and I am humbled that he admired my work. While his health had been failing in recent years, his death was still unexpected, and we are deeply saddened. For me, I will always remember his kind heart and his love for his niece, as well as the Roast Beef po boy at Parkway Tavern, which he said was perfect. I am not sure if this is the most appropriate place for this remembrance, but it is my blog and I can do whatever I damn well please. God bless you Chuck. I know you’re in a better place now.