NEW ORLEANS – By now the good citizens of New Orleans have been yanked and tossed and thrown to the ground so much by the NFL these last few months the city didn't know what to do when the New Orleans Four were freed.
Do they celebrate a win that might be fleeting until the league can regroup and levy the suspensions to current Saints Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma and former players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove?
Or do they decide to hate NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even more now that a three-judge panel has ruled he didn't have the right to levy the suspensions?
Being this was a Friday afternoon and it was New Orleans, they seemed to decide to hate Goodell and celebrate anyway.
"It's a victory for us," New Orleans resident David LeBoeuf shouted.
As he said this, he was standing in the middle of Lucy's Retired Surfer's Bar, which is located in the Warehouse District and was also Fujita's hangout. When Fujita lived here, he had an apartment in the five-story brick building that sits above Lucy's. And because Fujita hung out there, so did several other Saints players. It might be the closest thing to a Saints players' bar in a city where everybody longed to have a piece of the football team.
Whatever role Goodell played in persuading Saints owner Tom Benson to return to New Orleans in the months after Katrina has been forgotten. He is despised now for the draconian way he went about suspending Saints coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt, along with the four players and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for their roles in Williams' bounty program. The punishments have been debated for months now with fans screaming the same thing: Where is the evidence?
Initially, fans believed the league was out to impale the Saints, and now the mood seems to have turned to an understanding that this was a public relations move by a league that is facing a series of concussion lawsuits and needs something to show a potential jury that it is taking player safety seriously. Fans also seem to understand that the punishments were worse because the Saints lied to Goodell about ending the bounty program.
But why a year-long suspension for Payton? Or half a season for Loomis? Why take not only the head coach and the general manager, but then the interim coach as well?
And there's always that thing about evidence.
"Roger Goodell and the NFL never gave any evidence," said Saints fan Mike Goree as he stood on Tchoupitoulas Street outside Lucy's. "It's never been proven they paid bounties yet."
This is an important weekend in New Orleans. On Sunday the Saints will play their first regular season game since the suspensions. Already tensions are high. The city has just picked itself up from another hurricane. And somehow going into the stadium for a regular season game without Payton on the sideline agitated the locals.
Now the ruling, which essentially means that Smith can play on Sunday, has stirred the simmering fire. Initially the news gave hope that maybe the Payton suspension would be lifted. It took a good hour for word to settle over fans that, no, this ruling was just about the players. The man who built the great Saints offense and called the plays is still gone. The team's vision will not be on the sideline or in the meeting rooms during the week.
And as long as Payton is gone, New Orleans is going to be mad.
"To us, this is a vendetta against the Saints," LeBoeuf said, even acknowledging he understood the suspensions were a public relations move. "They tried to neuter our season, basically."
And so the city partied. But the city also seethed. It has its defensive end back – for at least a game – yet so much else is missing. Vilma is injured and won't be able to play. The other two players are gone and therefore irrelevant. Payton won't be back this year. The season promises to be challenging.
It's almost as if the judges overturning the suspensions made people here hate Goodell even more.
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