New Orleans is a city that suffers in silence. These days, it feels like a city being strangled in slow motion, a city whose current condition makes a lie of every political platitude preached over the past year. Yet ESPN spent four hours Monday trying to make us believe that the Crescent City--through the magic of sports and the return of the New Orleans Saints--is on the verge of resurrection.
The symbol of deliverance, we were told repeatedly during the broadcast, was the $185 million renovation of the Louisiana Superdome, $94 million of which came from FEMA. Never mind that the Dome's adjoining mall and hotel are still shuttered or that the city hasn't seen that kind of money spent on low-income housing destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The road back for the Big Easy begins in the Dome. As one ESPN talking head solemnly told us, "The most daunting task is to scrub away memories of the Superdome as a cesspool of human misery." That recalled the time when the football stadium became the homeless shelter from hell for 30,000 of New Orleans's poorest residents, huddled together in conditions Jesse Jackson likened to "the hull of a slave ship."
Now we are asked to believe the memories are being "scrubbed away." But the reality of refugee apartheid is hardly a memory. The game was held hostage to the awkward fact that the folks starring in ESPN's video montages of last year's "cesspool" were almost entirely black and the football fans in the stands were overwhelmingly white.
But recognizing this would contradict the infomercial for the new Big Easy that was designed to appeal to the typical family, which finds gumbo too spicy and thinks of soul as something consumed with tartar sauce. This message found its way into every aspect of ESPN's coverage. In the city that gave us the Marsalis family and the Neville brothers, the pregame entertainment was an incoherent duet featuring those icons of corporate rock, Green Day and U2, complete with the Irish-born Ego formally known as Bono shouting, "I am an American!" The two artists who best represent New Orleans's authentic musical tradition, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, were left to perform the national anthem, a melody so ponderous it could exorcise the soul from Aretha Franklin.
This selling of McOrleans continued when one announcer called the area outside the tourist zone "a graveyard of a community that no longer exists." But even in the most devastated parts of the city, that graveyard stubbornly throbs with life. As Josh Peter, writing from the Lower Ninth Ward for Yahoo Sports reported , "A group of 30 people gathered to watch the game next to a FEMA trailer. There were residents struggling to rebuild their homes and volunteers there to help them sharing red beans and rice. It was a congregation cheering as if it were inside the Superdome instead of inside a garage... 'We're still here,' Deborah Massey snapped at the TV announcer. 'They can't get rid of us.'"
The message behind the return of the Saints was tied together by the Godfather of No-Soul himself, former President George H.W. Bush, who declared that "the pessimists who said New Orleans wouldn't come back are wrong, and the optimists who dug in are doing great!"
Bush the Elder was then asked what he believed to be the great enduring lesson of the Katrina catastrophe. Anyone who hoped to hear "Don't hire a feckless fraternity buddy to run FEMA" was left disappointed. Instead we got: "The great lesson is the American spirit! And never give up on it! It's back and it's coming back more!"
That spirit was certainly on display when Bush walked out to the fifty-yard line for the coin flip. As Daily Kos noted , when Bush senior came out to flip the coin, ESPN apparently shut off the sound of a booing crowd for a few seconds and played audio of fake cheers. After about ten seconds, the boos were audible and angry.
There was reason for anger Monday night. There was also reason to cheer. The mood in the stadium was electric, and emotional, cathartic and wistful. I could feel Saints fans carrying their team to a 23-3 victory over the favored opponents, the Atlanta Falcons. I laughed and cheered upon seeing a big banner that read "Joe Horn for President"--both a caustic protest and a show of respect for the Saints wide receiver, who proudly says he wants to be "a voice for those who aren't heard." I felt a lump in my throat upon seeing the "Save Our Saints" sign, a reminder that for all the money spent on the Dome, Saints owner Tom Benson still threatens to move the team to more affluent shores. I shared the crowd's almost giddy love of quicksilver rookie Reggie Bush. And yes, it was nice to actually see a Bush raise up the spirit of New Orleans instead of crushing it.
It's easy to understand why ESPN announcer and Gulf Coast native Robin Roberts said, "Tonight is about baby steps forward. People are so hungry for a little slice of their normal life." It's also easy to understand why a city that depends so crucially on the tourist dollar would crave positive coverage. But the big answer for the Big Easy does not lie in becoming a gumbo-flavored Disneyland where service-economy dollars are directed to minimum-wage jobs. The city needs a massive federal works project that puts the people of New Orleans to work rebuilding their own city.
New Orleans is crying out for grand acts of daring and leadership. Nothing grand is coming from Washington, DC, and it is cruel to promote the belief that the drowned city will experience rebirth in a football stadium. The answer begins not with "scrubbing away memories of the Superdome" but in amplifying those memories so they fuel a movement to bring back not only the city but every last resident who wants to return. It ain't the Saints who need to go marching in. It's the rest of us.