Saints fans still coming to terms with Sean Payton’s severe punishment for bounty program
NEW ORLEANS – Three days after word of Sean Payton’s yearlong suspension, understanding was still coming hard around here so two teachers at Lusher Charter School had an idea for their eighth grade class: a debate. Go study, they said. Read the news articles. Take a side. Then come to argue: Half the class defend the NFL, the other represent the fans of a city still outraged.
Then on Monday eighth grade teacher Ed Cerrone and reading interventionist Sharon Preen gathered them together to deliver what they learned.
“The conclusion they came to was there should be consequences for actions and it’s not right to hurt people and take money for that,” said Lusher’s associate head of schools Patty Glazer. “But their other conclusion was: Is it right for the consequences to hurt the city so much?”
This is exactly what N’Awlins is wrestling with now. Did the New Orleans Saints’ crimes deserve such drastic punishment? And why exactly is the NFL, which saved the Saints after Hurricane Katrina and in the process helped them save themselves, now suddenly trying to tear the franchise apart?
Perhaps nowhere in the NFL, not even Green Bay, does a city need a team the way New Orleans does the Saints. Connections are everywhere. Outside the building at Lusher, where the eighth-graders debated the NFL’s bounty ruling that resulted in severe penalties last week, sits the school’s football field – donated by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Glazer herself once ran the Holy Rosary Academy across town, which was on the verge of closing in the months after Katrina until Reggie Bush gave $50,000 to keep it open.
Over at the airport, college basketball fans poured into town on Thursday for the Final Four. Team busses rolled with police escorts up and down Canal Street. In another time, the talk around town would be basketball. But this is no ordinary time. The city’s football franchise is in trouble and blame is everywhere: From a “snitch” who exposed former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ bounty system to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell whose reign has been filled with arbitrary punishments to a national media some believe wants to see the team fail.
After all, they say, why wasn’t New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick suspended when the team was caught stealing the New York Jets coaches’ signals during a game? And how come the lack of a suspension didn’t ignite a countrywide scream of protest?
“From what I’m hearing, the punishment is not conducive to the crime,” said Tab Damiens, a longtime Saints fan whose company Diversified Foods is in Metarie, La., the same community as the Saints’ headquarters. “It’s killing a gnat with a bazooka.”
Said his sister Michelle Hennessey: “The league said it knew about this for three years, why did they wait three years? Why as a leader did [Goodell] allow this for three years?”
The suspicion of many here is the NFL – facing a pile of lawsuits brought by former players over concussions they say came from their football careers – needed someone to make an example of and found an easy target in the Saints. Even as fans come to an uncomfortable understanding that Payton lied to Goodell about the bounty program, there is anger over the coach’s suspension. After all, Payton has become a hero in New Orleans – the one coach willing to take the job when the team returned from San Antonio and a disastrous 2005. He took the chance on them, they say, how can they turn their backs on him?
To many in New Orleans, the Saints are pure. This goes back for most of four decades, where an affection lived for the team that continuously lost during that span before the hurricane flooded their homes and ripped apart the Superdome’s roof. Over the next year, as the people came back, so many of the entities they had come to depend upon – from FEMA to the local government to the power company – failed them. The only one that came through was this lousy football team that had broken their hearts so many times before.
Now, out of nowhere, Goodell is blowing that up? Punishing Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis for something they believe many teams are doing anyway? A two- or four-game suspension New Orleans could understand. A year? That makes no sense.
“You want closure but I’m still looking for answers,” said Chris Bravender, a municipal bond writer and financial planner who describes himself as “the biggest Saints fan alive.”
[ Jason Cole: The Saints should pass on Bill Parcells in the interim ]
In the end, nothing seems clear. And so a weekend that should be festive with the Final Four is muted. It’s as if the city is being torn up all over again. But this is also New Orleans, a place that has faced its own troubles many times before. “Saints fans do rise to the top when faced with adversity,” Hennessey said.
Which is why the talk has already started. How will the city respond? For Payton’s suspension cannot go unanswered. Already solutions are being devised, emails sent, plans made, “Free Payton” tee shirts being sold. The answer, Damiens says, comes in pink.
As in tutus.
As in every fan in three tiers of the Superdome dressed in a pink tutu to send a silent but screaming message: Football is violent, after all. How dare the league take their coach away.
This is New Orleans, after all, and in New Orleans, if you hurt the Saints you hurt the city. This is how it has always been. This is how it will always be.
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