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Coming to Terms with the NFL

An original ©Mike Luckovich Cartoon for New Orleans Magazine

 

We’re still angry. We’re still hurt. We’re still aghast that one person’s bad decision had such a negative impact on so many people. Yet, for all the vitriol spoken about the NFL it is fair to acknowledge, and important in understand, just how important the league has been in the city’s history, both economically and socially.

Going back to Nov. 1, 1966, the day that Commissioner Pete Rozelle officially awarded the city an NFL franchise, the team was yet to have a name, owner, or coach, but it was loaded with high hopes. The awarding of the franchise lifted New Orleans from being a loveable but slow-paced southern town into a national city, one that literally gained big league status.

Without the Saints there would be no Superdome; without the dome there would have been no Poydras Street revival; without the resale of the dome’s bonds there would be no arena or Zephyr Stadium. Without the coming of the Saints, the city would never have hosted ten Superbowls.

That was just the beginning of the NFL lifeline: In 2005 the NFL really showed its mettle and, in the process, helped rescue the city.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was good reason to believe that the Saints franchise would never return. The dome was in ruins. The population was dispersed. San Antonio, the city to where the Saints relocated, already had a domed stadium in need of a user. And the mayor there was not shy about trying to lure the team to relocate.

Tom Benson faced a tough choice, made worse by not knowing whether or not the city could ever recover. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, however, did not waver. In a now famous meeting with Benson and area business owners, the commissioner made it clear, the team would definitely move back to New Orleans. He did not want the NFL to abandon a city in trouble. The league put money into restoring the Superdome. When the team did return, the dome was not quite ready, so Tagliabue orchestrated the Saints playing their pre-season on the road, plus the first three regular game. And when they returned home, on the fourth Monday of the season, Tagliabue arranged for the game to be on Monday Night Football against the rival Atlanta Falcons. One would not think that there could be any more drama than that. Yet, there was. This is the game that will always be remembered for Steve Gleason’s blocked punt in the opening moments. Who would have thought that Gleason himself would become a symbol or perseverance and survival? The Saints that season were surprisingly good and did much to excite a moldy city. Had the town lost the franchise, New Orleans’ confidence would have been shattered. Paul Tagliabue is, to us, one of the heroes of the recovery. So too is Roger Goodell. At the time of Katrina he was the league’s Chief Operations Officer and is given credit with working passionately to save the Superdome and the franchise for the city. USA Today, in writing about the city’s recovery once said this about Goodell:

Few in the league cared as much as Goodell did. He was committed to keeping the NFL in NOLA, and when plenty of other people within the league probably thought it was too much work, or impossible, and the team should just move to San Antonio, he remained steadfast.

Amazingly, only five years after Katrina, Goodell stood on a stage in Miami and handed the team he helped save a Superbowl trophy. But then, only a year later, came the so-called “Bountygate” scandals in which the team was accused of motivating players to make brutal hits on the opposition. We make no call on whether the severity of the crimes were overexaggerated, Coach Sean Payton was even suspended for a season; the organization was fined $500,000, and draft choices were lost among other punishments, yet Goodell should get some credit for trying to make a brutal sport less so.

During the days after the no-call disaster Goodell was criticized for not making a public statement, but in a legally charged environment, discretion was the proper course.

New Orleans was badly hurt by the blunder, but the severity of the pain is partially due to the NFL’s success at creating what has become the most heralded sports event in the nation. Were the Superbowl not such a stellar attraction being denied it would mean less.

We are grateful to the NFL for all that it has done the city and for the support of three commissioners; Rozelle, Tagliabue and Goodell. We’re also grateful to the Saints who were so good that we know who the real champions are.

All we can do now is move on, think good thoughts and hope for a better day. But we still can’t help wondering: how did the referees miss such an obvious penalty?


 

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