The importance of Monday night’s NFL game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, the first to be held in the city since Hurricane Katrina just over a year ago, was not understated in the press. The game made headlines in gads of papers across the country, served as the fodder for numerous columnists and was frequently highlighted during CNN’s Tuesday news coverage.
The story, for the most part, was the same. This past Monday night, this game, was about healing. It was a large step in what has been a painstakingly slow recovery from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. By and large, the joyous scenes were the first happy pictures beamed out of that city since Mardi Gras — though that holiday’s sentiment was marked more by defiance than genuine mirth. Monday, however, Monday was a testament to “the healing power of sports.”
That’s the phrase that ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser dropped repeatedly during the station’s broadcast of Monday’s game. He, and the many other columnists and commentators touting that theme on Tuesday, are certainly correct to use a statement of that sort. Glancing at the ecstatic faces of the Saints fans alone was enough to prove its truth. But my question is “why?” Why do sports possess this transcendent healing quality during times of crisis?
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when the baseball and football schedules resumed after their temporary hiatus, commentators began to iterate that the country was “back to normal.” It wasn’t. Even as play resumed, workers sorted through the debris of the World Trade Center and Pentagon to find the bodies of the dead.
After Monday’s game, the sports page may have recommenced its usual look, absent a parenthetical (played in San Antonio/East Rutherford/Baton Rouge) next to the Saints’ box score, but New Orleans is not back to normal. Many residents remain displaced, others reside in FEMA trailers, some toil to salvage remnants of a home better off demolished. There is no normalcy in those lives … none except the Saints anyway.
Sports are part of the American identity. That’s why the President throws out the first pitch each year, why the Super Bowl is its own time of year … and why it also carries the highest ad rates of any televised program. This identity is particularly strong between the city of New Orleans and its Saints, a lowly franchise by most measures. In a stirring column in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Michael Wilbon asked a Mississippi native if he thought the $185 million spent reviving the Super Dome would have been better spent elsewhere. He replied: “I remember being in class when I heard the report that the Saints might move to Los Angeles. They never won anything, but they’re ours. We lost everything else. To lose them would have been unbearable. Ask anybody.”
You could argue that the media, including myself, has sensationalized this game. That, at its core, it was really nothing more then grown men playing a children’s game … for money at that. Those that do, however, risk overlooking the true appeal of sports and, I believe, the reason why athletic competitions such as this carry such great import in the wake of tragedies like Katrina.
On one level, sports are simply entertainment, as the game served little more than a four-hour distraction from more important concerns. But there is also a unifying factor to sports, a support, a kinship, even a brotherhood. When you stand inside a stadium, eyes locked on the field and cheering for your team, you are part of something larger than yourself … you are not alone. A thought like that can be mighty comforting when you face a night in a temporary trailer park.
There’s the vicarious element as well. You imagine yourself in those situations, just like you dreamt about scoring that game-winning touchdown as a child. Part of that never leaves you. It’s why we cry when we see the Yankees or the Red Sox win a World Series for the first time in our lives, and why we fret for hours on talk radio about largely inconsequential details and decisions. Our teams are part of our identity, and that was all the more true for the Saints fans on Monday.
That’s why I believe that sports have that transcendent healing quality about them — more than movies or human interest stories or even political speeches. With the Saints, there’s also a tangible aspect to the healing. As the Mississippi native said in Wilbon’s column: “The NFL, the Saints, keep us in plain sight. When they’re playing, people won’t forget us.”
Monday’s game was a wonderful step, a near-storybook step, but it was only one among many, many more on the road to the city’s recovery. But what happens next? What happens now that ESPN has recorded its largest viewing audience ever? What happens now that home games at the Super Dome are “normal” again? What happens to those cheering fans if the Saints drop their next 13 games?
The story on Monday was indeed a happy one, but it was merely a chapter in a much larger tale. And only if the city of New Orleans, not the Saints, can successfully continue its gradual rebirth will that tale have a happy ending.