Posted February 2, 2010
Sinners and Saints… New Orleans Redemption Found?
Almost everyone in Louisiana- including myself- is excited about the Saints making it to the Super Bowl. No. Excited is an understatement. Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau wrote “Saints euphoria sweeps New Orleans past Katriana; Roar of hurricane now replaced by roar of fans” (ABC News, WSJ, others).
The season’s victory is being celebrated across racial divisions both inside the city and region. It has also to some extent obscured class divisions within the city. It is a collective point of reference that unifies the people of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Gulf South. Burdeau has part of it right: the excitement of the city’s underdog football team reaching the final game has released collective endorphins, and acting as a group therapy for a city still rebuilding and state plagued with budget crisis. I was watching the Saints-Vikings game with friends in north Louisiana. It was a nail biter. In the end, people jumped up and down, screamed, cried. In New Orleans my friends and comrades flooded into the streets with everyone else in a spontaneous all-night Sunday party. But Burdeau writes as if Katrina was merely a natural disaster, a single event: a day, a week, perhaps two. But Katrina was more of a man-made catastrophe. Government neglect and neoliberal “shock doctrine” have privatized transportation, destroyed unions, and kept Charity Hospital shuttered.
I am hoping for a Saints victory on February 7. But everyone should know that a Saints victory doesn’t let the country off the hook for the tragedy of not prioritizing rebuilding the region- and peoples’ lives- after Hurricane Katrina.
TaNaKh (The Old Testament)
The Saints were established in 1967 as a modest expansion team. They played at Tulane Stadium through 1974. After forty-three years they have finally made it to the Superbowl.
The Saints were established near the population peak- and after the beginning of economic decline of New Orleans. The team’s colors, black, old gold, and white (unchanged to date), symbolize the initial owner (Texan John W. Mecom, Jr) as well as the city’s strong ties to “black gold” (oil and gas industry) as much as the city’s legacy as the shipping and finance capital of the old gold amassed from King cotton cultivated by Black slaves. The fleur de lis, of course, is the heraldic symbol of the divine right of (French) kings, stretching back to Clovis.
In 1980 the Saints lost fourteen consecutive games, after which Buddy D Diliberto called on fans to wear paper bags over their heads at Saints home games. It took 33 years before the team won their first playoff game in 2000. The Saints were showing themselves to be a decent performing team on the verge of Hurricane Katrina, but owner Tom Benson threatened to move the team if Governor Blanco refused a new stadium or annual cash payments from the state.
Flood & New Beginnings
The Superdome was the shelter of last resort in Hurricane Katrina. It was by far the most solid and stable large structure in the city. It became a symbol of human suffering and government ineptitude. But before many hospitals were online or schools were reopened, rebuilding of the dome commenced.
At the time of the city’s (and its displaced residents’) greatest vulnerability, Tom Benson began maneuvering to move the team to San Antonio. The 2005 home games were split between the Alamodome in San Antonio and Tiger Stadium at LSU (Baton Rouge, LA). The team offices and practices were domiciled in San Antonio, and Texas politicians were busy helping to facilitate that relocation, while simultaneously demonizing the internally displaced persons taking refuge in their state. The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones even joined the other buzzards circling our wounded.
The people of New Orleans were incensed. Rotting refrigerators placed on the curbs carried many social messages aimed at George Bush, but almost as many lamented Tom Benson’s greed during the city’s time of need. I read one marked “stinks almost as bad as Tom Benson.” The city’s anger was boiling over. At the time I used every Benson kvetch as an opportunity to talk municipal/ state ownership, or to contrast the Saints with Green Bay. The anger toward Benson was often expressed in raw class terms, and has lasted-albeit in residual and diminished form- until this NFL season.
The pushback from the people of New Orleans- and NFL and commissioner Paul Tagliabue- forced Benson to keep the Saints in New Orleans at least for the time being. By September 2006, Benson announced a sold out season, a franchise first. The Saints won their first home game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, beating the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 and went on to a commendable 2006 season. “A Bush we can all agree on,” a witty slogan by the socially liberal Dirty Coast promotions referring to 2006 draft pick Reggie Bush. No doubt was Reggie New Orleans’ (“our”) Bush; a Black superhero that happened to have the same surname as the villain President. But the “we can ALL agree on” foreshadows a certain détente between New Orleanians with the forces of government and capital.
The 2007 season was the second sold out season, with all 77,000 plus seats and luxury boxes sold- and made it to the NFC championship for the second time- making it a more popular team than ever, despite New Orleans’ post-Katrina population only 60% of its former self. The 2008 season was a comparative disappointment, with the team losing its last two games, finishing 7-9. This year the team struggled mid-season after faltering to the Dallas Cowboys at home, but ultimately made it to the Super Bowl. A Super Bowl victory will be good for the spirit, even if it doesn’t begin to address the deep scars of the city and its people.
The Saints’ season wasn’t simply a product of luck, or Voodoo for that matter. Sean Payton and the Drew Brees have spent years honing their and organization alongside a team of increasingly talented individuals. The team has perfected a rushing game, kept the ball longer than their opponents, and , despite 20% less yards gained overall, they manage to catch a number of receptions. Likewise, the working class folks of New Orleans will need strong much stronger organization to counter the neoliberal offensive.
We can’t win the “big game” of the class if we can’t win a single game (a set of reforms or concessions). To build power, we must build a strategy : we can’t win anything if we’re not as organized as the other team (the ruling class). When developing this analogy, a comrade (Krisna B. from Gathering Forces) paraphrased C.L.R. James: “we’re facing a crisis of the self-mobilization of the working class.” All too often we wait around for a Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Drew Brees or Sean Payton or some other leader, because of our tendency to consider history as a hall of fame of great personalities (Malcolm, W.E.B. Dubois, Angela Davis), so do we have a similar tendency to think of team sports merely as the great athletes who were a part of them. But when a good team comes together, it is MORE than the sum of its parts. Of course, football and working class and popular organization aren’t the same thing. But what parallels can we draw???
When the Saints come marching in?
On this Sunday, February 7, I hope the world is rooting for the New Orleans Saints. More importantly, I hope the world is rooting for the people of Haiti suffering through the aftermath of the earthquakes, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan struggling against continued wars and occupation, and the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast still struggling to put their lives together after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans needs better public transportation, affordable housing, and healthcare. The race and class inequalities initially exposed by Hurricane Katrina have not gone away with the ascension of the sports team. They are symptomatic of the capitalist system and continue to be found in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, throughout the United States and world. This is not a scrimmage. It’s time to the working classes of the world to play to win!
On the Saints from RightHandThief
More on sports from Edge of Sports by Dave Zirin