Right now I’m thinking about the Indianapolis Colts. Due to play in the Super Bowl next Sunday evening against the New Orleans Saints, I can’t help but wonder who, apart from their homeys, might be rooting for them. Everyone I know – even here in rabid Patriots Nation – wants the Saints to win.
The Saints are a classic feel-good story. Not only do they seem like good guys, maybe not the best players but perhaps the ones having the most fun and, more importantly, the most aware of what their success means. Their remarkable season transcends personal and franchise glory. The Saints today are who they are in part because of the tragedy the region endured and a magical relationship that has since grown up between a city, a stadium and a team.
Who can forget the dreadful scenes of the Superdome right after Katrina, packed with traumatized hurricane refugees sweltering in the heat and humidity, desperate for water, food and a way out? When reports of conditions inside the stadium began to circulate – the overcrowding, lack of air conditioning, the fetid atmosphere, the clogged and overflowing toilets – and the lackadaisical, incompetent, even criminal emergency response became apparent, it was as if we suddenly were forced to witness something ugly in our national character. The decade just past was characterized in part by a series of such revelations: Abu Ghraib, extreme rendition, the use of torture not only admitted but even promoted. We, as a country, were not who we thought we were.
Just as 9-11 symbolized both a horrifying outrage and a response that sacrificed fundamental rights and values for an elusive (some would say illusionary) sense of security, Katrina became emblematic of deep racial and class disadvantages, and of how, despite those disparities, with grit, vision and hard work people can rise up. Even after all this time the City of New Orleans is still not restored, especially some of the poorer and hardest hit areas like the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard’s parish. Not everyone has been able to come home. Two years ago – three years after Katrina – I went to a Saints’ game in the Superdome and there were still tatters hanging from holes in the ceiling. However, the city and the stadium are still here and the Saints have come to symbolize that will to survive. Even in dark days good times can prevail.
The expansion of sports in high schools and colleges, a significant result of Title IX legislation, has had a positive influence, especially for girls. (More about the real concerns regarding football head injuries in another post.) The statistics of the benefits for girls who play team sports are startling: far fewer instances of pregnancy, abusive relationships, even later occurrences of breast cancer.
In educational and management circles we frequently invoke sports metaphors. We point to the advantages of teamwork: how it teaches skills of cooperation and communication and draws on a diversity of strengths and perspectives. Teamwork at its best creates an integrated entity far greater than the sum of its parts.
In sports, a single goal can unify people who would otherwise have little in common. In the case of New Orleans and the Saints, the prospect of winning the Super Bowl has created community, that integrated entity, as effectively as Katrina drowned it, when the affluent got out of town and the poor got stranded…or worse.
I can’t help but feel sorry for the Colts. No matter what happens next Sunday, they’ve already lost. They probably are the better team but if they win the game, they’ll be seen by many as spoilers, and if they lose, they’ll be a footnote to the joyful noise that will reverberate from Bourbon Street to Main Streets across the nation. If we end up celebrating the Saints’ victory, we’ll be celebrating a far more important achievement than the higher score of what is, after all, only a game: we’ll be honoring a will to win over disenfranchisement and despair and overwhelming odds. Now and then sports can do that. Laissez les bon temps rouler!