the NFL and Katrina

i realize that this is probably a little late, but i wanted to put some time and thought into this subject and i wanted to see what other columnists had written about last week when the saints and their return to the superdome a year after it was basically destroyed by hurricane katrina. and after everything that has transpired so far, i think it is safe to say that the NFL's and the saints' organization's taking advantage of the situation is nothing less than a complete affront to common decency. perhaps sports journalists should bear some of the blame as well, but all in all, celebrating the return of the saints to the superdome is like celebrating the return of the enola gay from hiroshima.

for those of you who don't pay attention to these kind of things, let me give you a quick summary of what happened. two weeks ago in the week leading up to the saints first home game in the superdome since hurricane katrina, the game was hyped up by the league as a way of showing off how new orleans has rebuilt itself. the ESPN announcers of course, went over the top with this angle and could not stop talking about how the saints were a beacon of hope for the ravaged city. they especially hammered home the point that the superdome, which we most remember as the make shift shanty town for the displaced of new orleans was now all shiny and new and full of people in the city that had rallied around it as a symbol of its survival. espn's TMQ has gone so far as using the moniker, "the United States Saints" when referring to the team (although i can't tell if he's being sarcastic). mayor ray nagin probably summed up public sentiment about the saints when he said
Psychologically, the Saints mean everything to this community right now. We need them now more than ever -- at least until we get back on our feet.
how does this make any sense whatsoever? you wannna know what would really lift people up psychologically? if someone would spend the money to clean up the poor neighborhoods so that people could start with the process of rebuilding their lives. and by all accounts, the only place that is fixed up are the downtown areas and the nice nieghborhoods that didn't have that much damage to begin with. i've heard first hand accounts that the most damaged neighborhoods still look like war zones.

however, peter king's column from two weeks ago is most instructive however as we learn:
The federal and state governments poured $180 million into a new roof and massive rehab at the Superdome.
while king uses this as a warm and fuzzy story, we as american citizens should be offended by this. how can it be that the freakin' saints get 180 million dollars to fix the superdome, and the people in the 9th ward can't get the debris removed from the streets? the disconnect between this and what actually happened is amazing to me. and the NFL has been ruthless in taking advantage of the situation to generate profit for themselves.

nothing would have been worse for the saints, and by extension the league overall than the saints having to relocate to baton rouge, where they played some games last year, or to another city. attendance would have been down, the saints would have probably eventually relocated and football starts to resemble more a business and less like america's favorite and most important sporting institution. so somehow, they con the state and federal governments to use funds that should clearly be used to fix the levees, clean up the streets, and get people back on their feet, to instead fix a stadium for a completely troubled franchise. furthermore, they encourage people to spend money on season tickets instead of say donating to organizations that would help to rebuild the city. the saints have sold out every home game. so not only does the money from the government go the profit margins of the NFL, but they also get people to spend their own money on the saints as well, who by the way sucked worse than any team in the league last year (although i must admit they look ok this year, but trust me, the 3-1 saints...that's not gonna last.). this is the definition of ludicrous.

that's enough of the emotional stuff, let's talk sociology. this actually shouldn't be that big of a surprise. the NFL has co-opted other causes in the name of trying to make more money. most recently, they've turned themselves into the support the troops league, especially with the over the top honoring of pat tillman. in many ways, the NFL has perfected the process of manipulating the public's perception of the league into something that is nothing but pure goodness. by selectively choosing these causes (katrina, pat tillman) and then distilling them into simplistic notions of helping people, when in fact no one is getting helped, it is able to associate itself with the core values of those who consume most of its product: dumb guys who don't read the front page of the newspaper and only read the sports page. the end result is a brand that is even stronger than ever and can generate more revenue than ever.

even more masterful is it's manipulation of the press via PR blitz into turning the return of the saints into feel good event of the year. i can't find a single columnist who was angry about the situation. even tony kornheiser, the most cynical of sports columnists wrote
It will take years and years for it (New Orleans) to come back whole again. But the great elixir of sports, the great shot of adrenaline that sports gives you, is in those few hours when you can lose yourself -- and put your worries aside -- and if you get lucky your team wins and you go home happy. The problem in New Orleans, of course, is that not everybody has a home to go to. Still, nobody walking out of that Superdome on Monday night felt anything but hope. It's a script that was perfectly written and a moment that was perfectly lived.
can you think of a better commercial for the NFL? neither can i.

anyways, what i guess i'm trying to say is that NFL is trying to say that they are helping someone, when in fact they're just really helping themselves. if they really wanted to help out new orleans, they could have just used the money that was used to fix the superdome to help out those folks that are still homeless in the 9th ward. but instead, they're gong around promoting the idea that "hey look how the NFL saved the city from ruin!" which really just means that they're essentially just saying very loudly, "what about me?"


h8r said...

good work b. i was surprised that mr soc of sport hadnt said anything about the disgusting scene and drama at that mnf game.

the most striking thing and actually very infuriating as well was who was AT the game that was supposed to "give the people of new orleans" hope again. ive heard that a good part of the people there were from out of town and the rest? well you could just see were probably the elite white people whose homes were never damaged in the first place. sure this doesnt mean that they might not have suffered psychologically or even economically from all the devestation but i guarantee that it wasnt the same as the people in the ninth ward.

i guess what im trying to say is, if the nfl really cared about the people of new orleans or at least wanted them to forget about their reality for a few hours why not just invite as many of them to the game as possible? tony cornball's speech was completely irrelevant because im sure the majority of the people at the game did indeed have a home (or hotel) to go back to...those who werent there probably didnt even have a tv set to watch.

on a side sociological note, i thought the whole spectacle of the night was something equivalent to "gentrification" in sport. i mean last year the whites didnt want anything to do with the superdome and the only ones living there were poor blacks. the ones who had no choice. slap 180 million dollars worth of roof and other fix-ups and oila! all the whites people are back--but where did all the african americans go?

and on a final note, that whole Sting and Green Day shindig was bullshit (sorry bob). if it was about raising money for these displaced musicians why not have them singing and up front with bono and his clowns clapping in the back or something? but i guess if youre entertaining a bunch of white people, i guess as dave chappelle says what better than a bunch of electric guitars? that espn church "production" was pure garbage too. very creepy and mlk like.

Erik said...

I can't wait until we get some of this NFL magic in Detroit, the poorest big city in America! Soon, the Lions will help lift the Motor City back to its former glory! Stay tuned!

Darwin BondGraham said...

Right on Bob…

To Erik;
But for this kind of "NFL magic" to come to Detroit you'll first have to endure some sort of horrendous disaster. How about an ice-storm? An earthquake isn’t totally out of the question. Maybe a killer Chicago style heat wave? Or perhaps the disaster that is the withdrawal of capital, employment, and federal resources combined with the enduring power of racism and the dismantling of the welfare state is disaster enough already? How could the NFL capitalize on this? Go Lions! Is that what they’re called, I don’t even know. I think football sucks. Sorry, terrible thing to admit on this blog eh?

I was in a bar on Washington Avenue in NOLA just a few months back and a fellow in their told me his story. He said he’s homeless, his family is all still in Texas, he lost all his belongings, and he can’t find a job. He tried to sell me his foodstamp debit card for some cash. Struggling. But with a sarcastic grin he exclaimed, “but we got Reggie – fuckin’ – Bush! I ain’t got no roof on my house, but the Superdome has got a new top.”

Ian said...

Actually, Detroit already had this, except it was called the 1968 Tigers.

The 1968 Tigers are still viewed as the team that a racially-fragmented Detroit got behind, putting its differences aside in the process.

Of course, nearly 40 years later, the Detroit area is still the most racially polarized in the nation. I think we overestimate the importance of sports. It may be a distraction from tragedy, but it doesn't alleviate the pain.

(From Wikipedia)
To repair the Superdome, FEMA put up $115 million, the state spent $13 million, the Louisiana Stadium & Expedition District refinanced a bond package to secure $41 million and the NFL contributed $15 million.

They're saying the total cost of renovation, with funds from all sources included, was $186 million. They're also saying that to tear the stadium down and rebuild would have likely cost in excess of $600 million, and displaced the Saints for at least another year or two... if the franchise didn't decide to move to LA.

Here's a case where I don't know what's best. Allowing the franchise to leave eliminates a valued revenue source for local and surrounding businesses that help drive the New Orleans economy.

If you don't repair the dome, the Saints leave, and other businesses tank. If you tear the dome down and pay $600 million, then people will kvetch about an even larger figure NOT being spent on the victims of Katrina. Honestly, I think they were screwed in the eyes of some no matter what they did with the money.

The NFL advertising blitz, I feel, was intended to show how New Orleans has returned, thereby providing a boon to the tourism industry, and allowing the area to help rebuild itself financially.

Allowing the Saints to leave or delay their return tanks a number of businesses and eliminates several other jobs, and that only exacerbates the problem.

FEMA and the state provided $128 million (I think). If that money had been given to help the Katrina victims, that would have been wonderful, but they probably viewed keeping the Saints and the Superdome around at a relative bargain price (vs. $600 million) as being a better long-term move for the area.

This is the part where you all disagree with me.

Bob said...

ian, nice comments and meticulously researched, as i would expect no less from a medill school alum.

i've read a couple of economic journal articles on the impact of sports teams coming and going from an area. unlike you, i'm not going to find the citation, so you'll just have to take my word for it. the conclusion that several researchers reached was that municipalities and sports leagues way overstate the economic impact of the local sports team. sure a local economy suffers if a team leaves, but not nearly as much as the NFL would have you believe. but what is even more interesting, is that they showed that having a team moving in almost never results in a substantial increase to the local economy, due mostly to the zillion and one concessions that cities make to have them come. now obviously, new orleans might be a special case since the economy is on the border of utter and complete collapse. and i'm not saying that the conclusions that these researchers are 100 percent true. however, i do think that the idea that the best way that the NFL can help is by promotion of their own product seems very disingenious to me.

i have to disagree with you on the intentions of the media blitz. it may have resulted in a boon in the tourist economy in the short term, but i think that is a secondary result. i think that NFL marketers are really smart and were thinking long term in establishing a brand. there are very few organizations that i can think of that are as good as branding as the NFL and the type of stuff that went out was classic PR stuff.