Sports and the City

Even if you don’t follow pro football, and even if you don’t live anywhere near New Orleans, you might have noticed something of the impact of the Saint’s victory filled season and their NFC championship victory last night. If you watched last night’s post-game interviews, you heard players like Drew Brees and the coach Sean Payton talk about winning for the city, about the special significance of rebuilding a championship team in a city struggling to rebuild after Katrina. Of course most cities like their professional sports teams when they win, but not only have the Saint’s fans have been supporting them through lots of thin years, but a special bond was formed after the devastation of Katrina. Sally Jenkins has a column in the Post talking about this bond, especially with players and a coach who came to the city when it was knocked down but not out:

“Four years ago there were holes in this roof,” Payton said. “The fans in this region and this city deserve this.”

This time, the wreckage on the field and in the streets was sweet, beads and feathers and streamers, as opposed to the flotsam and detritus of the flood. The references were inescapable, and the Saints didn’t shy from them. All season, they had announced they were playing for something much larger than themselves. “It’s a calling,” quarterback Drew Brees said. After all, their home stadium had been the last refuge in the city for 30,000 residents during Hurricane Katrina, and an earthly version of hell during the storm-flood afterwards, strewn with debris and with breaches in the roof. The damage was so heavy, and so emblematic of New Orleans’s sense of trauma and abandonment, that city officials nearly decided to tear it down.

Instead it underwent a $200 million renovation, and when the Saints returned to it in 2006, they did so with a new head coach in Payton, and a quarterback the rest of the league had given up on in the sore-shouldered Brees. The renovated dome was a charmless edifice, all gray cinder block, but it was filled with the ghosts of Katrina, and the men who played inside the building never once flinched from the responsibility of that. On the contrary, they took specific, enormous pride in it. “Ninety percent of people who come up to me on the street don’t say, ‘Great game,’ ” Brees said back in 2006, when he first got to town. “They say, ‘Thank you for being part of the city.’ ”

Brees and Payton became the guys who came to New Orleans when no one else would.

Why are sports so important to our cities? Or are they so important? How good is it for our cities and towns to keep up this love affair with sports teams? It’s not always such a happy story, as with the the Saints and New Orleans. The writers at Field of Schemes have done a good job of ferreting out the often problematic aspects of sports franchises and their host cities–looking into the details about whether cities are really better off for all the public funds they invest in sports teams. Yet another topic we’ll explore in the Shaping our Towns & Cities project.

–Jeff Prudhomme

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