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 Alvin 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.'”