Saints fans are a unique lot. I’m not suggesting they’re either more or less dedicated than any other fan base. Let’s just say, they’re different.
Few NFL fan bases have suffered the ebbs and flows of the New Orleans faithful over the past few years. The city went from being uprooted by one of the worst, natural disasters in our nation’s history to winning the Super Bowl a few years later, to having players, their GM and nearly their entire coaching staff suspended for alleged improprieties, aka, Bounty Gate.
As many of you know, I often try to tap into the hearts and minds of my friends and readers. So in the aftermath of the suspensions, then re-instatements, of Saints like Jonathan Vilma, along with their disconcerting 0-3 start, I thought it might be wise to consult with one of the biggest Saints fans I know. A man of many nicknames, you know him as either El Jefe, Mr. Big Stuff, or the man more likely than Brad Pitt, but not Drew Brees, to become the next mayor of New Orleans. Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly give you DJ Arthritic Semitic.
SportsChump: First of all, sir, to prove to my readers you are no fly by night Saints fan, please give us a brief background attesting to your NOLAness, how long you’ve been a fan, why you’re qualified to speak on such matters and what vinyl happens to be sitting on your turntable as we speak.
DJ AS: Thank you, CHump. Appreciate the kind introduction – it’s damn hard to make a New Orleanian blush!
As you know, I travel often for work and I think it’s pretty fair to call us a little different from the rest. You might even call it a point of pride. You can’t find places with the level of civic devotion and passion that we have in NOLA. Visitors actually seem taken aback by the barrage of flags, stickers, tattoos, jewelry and songs we have lauding ourselves for being who we are. I mean, we really celebrate for each other above anyone else, and do so whether anyone is watching or not. That flur-de-lis on the Saints helmet isn’t just our team’s logo – it’s our city’s logo. Who has a logo?!? Without a doubt, it’s a city that’s survived disease, war, natural disasters, man-made ones like the post-Katrina flood, and will continue to do so, chin up, long after Roger Goodell descends from on-high.
Personally, I’ve always felt being a Saints fan was like having a heart murmur. It’s a very physical feeling, for better or worse! It started for me in the late ’80’s when I fell in love with one of the greatest defenses the league has ever seen. Pat Swilling? Ricky Jackson?! Sam Mills?!!! Chris, they used to play “Welcome to the Terrordome” before games… I was in heaven. We loved our Cajun quarterback, the few yards Ironhead gained by falling forward and the truly unstoppable leg of Morton Andersen. Sure they may have all been out partying the night before but with a defense that gave you such great field position and that leg strength, it wasn’t 3-and-out. It was 3-and-“3” on our way to that 9 to 6 point win. Anyway, that’s how I got hooked.
Oh, and I called home to ask and it seems I left Betty Davis’ “They Say I’m Different” on the tables. Funny coincidence but a great record – for real.
SC: Funny you mention a 9-6 final. I think you, Woody and I went to a Bucs-Saints game in the Old Sombrero back in the day that ended with that very same score. Offensive powerhouses they were. Remember Woody randomly making out with that skank who had been pestering us all day as the game ended? Good times. Oh, and I think Tampa also has an official city logo. It’s a stripper pole.
Okay, let’s talk Bounty Gate. What’s your take on the situation, what’s been the local sentiment, do you think Vilma’s now vindicated and is Sean Payton unnecessarily taking the heat for all this madness?
DJ AS: Ha! Oh, I remember it well. I believed we dubbed it the “Toilet Bowl.” The cool part was the surprising level of camaraderie and good humor in the stands, right? I think Bucs fans and Saints fans clearly shared a lot more in common back then than they do now… including our boy, Woody.
Well, I think local sentiment here could be easily described at this point as openly hostile. It’s hard to not feel shortchanged as fans, or that this hasn’t gotten childishly personal between these parties. I mean, how can we even discuss the specifics of what’s going on when the situation still changes daily? This has gone on for months, the season’s started, players, coaches, the owner and the fans have all been punished to a pretty hefty degree already and the NFL still refuses to really present its case? It’s hard not to feel like something’s rotten here and I’m glad that people are picking up on it. Beware or this could happen to you!
I’m guessing when all is said and done that there are no real angels in this story. And there are serious issues here with larger implications for the league. We can talk about football being uglier than we like to think, what actually happened and if it was punishable, whether the Saints are being made an example of, if the punishment is proportional, or even whether some of these guys have problems with each other that pre-date this particular beef… but I’m just a freakin’ fan! I’m sure you can guess where I come down on all of these questions but is this really what the football experience is supposed to be like? Do I need an attorney to follow my team?! (And that rulebook… don’t get me started.)
Irrelevant of how totally wrong-headed and petty this has gotten, I would think that any NFL fan recognizes that Goodell and the system that empowers him is totally broken. They could not have handled this worse. And it doesn’t seem like it’s the first time Goodell has gotten into it with a team or player to the point where questions of consistency and impartiality seem obvious, and yet the flow of money seems to keep the majority quiet. I really hope the rest of the league doesn’t miss the larger picture here. The loss of players, coaches, draft picks and fines is easily the closest thing to a death penalty the NFL has delivered, and yet we’re still actually discussing issues of evidence and authority in Week 2? I would hope the players and the owners are rethinking giving the commish this kind of unchecked power over their ability to earn a living. This certainly looks nothing like what most Americans would have expected from any fair process.
SC: I feel the same way about the game and the direction it’s headed. I’m not as anti-Goodell as most. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for authoritarians. You remember Melanie, don’t you? But I do feel that if the game isn’t careful, it could very well implode, or at least flirt with losing its standing as the number one sport in America. Things do change, after all, and nothing is a given.
Look, every Sunday, we don our jerseys, paint our faces, impulsively check our fantasy lineups (I don’t, but everyone else in the world does) and put our lives on hold for about seven hours. Nothing else matters. The NFL reigns supreme.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
Major League Baseball was the nation’s most popular sport for years, until they struck. Then no one gave a shit. Football happily stepped in its place. But the league can’t continue to take its fan base for granted. Ticket prices are high and games are blacked out so that we (Tampa Bay) can’t watch our team on television. It’s like we’re being punished for not going to the games because we don’t have the extra $200 to spend. Players are suspended for tackling opponents the way they’ve always been taught and the league has consistently shown it doesn’t take care of its own. Veterans are discarded like toilet tissue, their health not a concern in the slightest. Oh yeah, and then there’s the officials who the league doesn’t feel are worth $8,000 a game when Goodell spends that on a business lunch.
I’m not saying I’m not going to watch. Of course I am, they’ve got me by the pigskin. I’m just saying the league might want to give a little back. So what’s my next question, you ask?
Back to Payton’s martyrdom. He’s been the most beloved Saints coach since Jim Mora. Playoffs?!? Seanie has shown us his true character by taking the fall and not crying foul. It reminds me of that scene in “Goodfellas” where Deniro approaches a young Henry Hill outside the courtroom after getting pinched for the first time, slips a hundo inside his shirt pocket and commends him for keeping quiet.
Do you think this Saints team can make the playoffs without Payton and if so, are we on the verge of discovering just how important, or unimportant, an NFL head coach actually is to his team?
DJ AS: I wish I could say that things have become clearer since we started this conversation but the only thing that’s really come into focus this week is my unadulterated anguish. Arrgghhh!
It seems we can agree the general impact here is getting much larger than just the Saints. The franchise doesn’t actually take a hit in value that I can see, but you have to consider the risk of alienating a whole market full of people in one blow, who didn’t do anything but buy your tickets, wear your gear, and push your TV numbers. We’re not actually innocent bystanders here – we’re your damn customers.
With the replacement refs having actually overshadowed Bounty-Gate as the NFL’s “C’mon, man” of the week, it does feel like we’re reaching some sort of critical mass. I mean, the Saints’ game actually had a discussion between an interim-interim head coach and a replacement-replacement ref. It’s getting a little surreal out there.
When it comes to Payton’s value, I don’t think there’s much question at this point. The Saints are an incredibly talented team who’ve gone down like bad oysters. I don’t know if I can go as far as elevating him from Saint to martyr but I think he’s done as well as he can through this process. As I see it, Sean has no play here.
There’s no union, no mediation, really no recourse other than going ballistic in public. And where does that leave you? We already have a Gruden. Payton’s definitely taken it with grace and aplomb… but he must be losing his mind!
I don’t know what happens to us from here, but everyone knows just how die-hard this fan base is. We’ll have to be mathematically expelled before we can even have a chance to ignore the numbers. Personally, I can’t look away. And in January, when we get to welcome back all of NFL fandom to its 10th Super Bowl in New Orleans, I don’t think they’ll find us any less enthusiastic for whatever teams are there, any less fun or talented – anything less than America’s greatest hosts!
But I do hope that through the haze of the party, if just for a moment, our eyes will meet…. and that little Melanie will know it’s over between us.
SC: You’re right about things getting uglier by the day. The latest news is that Jonathan Vilma’s attorney has subpoenaed Gregg Williams, who has to be the biggest persona non grata in New Orleans since George W. Bush.
At this point, this appears to be becoming an issue the NFL wished it had never addressed. Had they to do it all over again, they probably would have suspended Williams, who is no longer with the damn team and just dismissed his locker room “hunt for the head” tirade as something that happens in locker rooms pre-game around the league. Now they have a healthy can of earthworms on their hands that won’t go away and as you suggest, it looks like it’s going to affect the Saints, and their fans, all season long.
Well, sir, I don’t know how much more we can beat this issue to death since, as you suggest, all the facts aren’t even out yet. I know you’ve been busy, so thanks again for your time. Perhaps when (or rather if) this is eventually resolved, we’ll revisit the case and grade Goodell’s overall performance. That’s assuming he hasn’t been impeached or taken out by Ed Hochuli.
Is there anything else you care to add before you get back to your Voodoo?
DJ AS: As far as Goodell goes, I don’t know if there’s any chance of getting reprimanded or replaced but I don’t see any real talk of it. I think he’ll live to fight another day, and so will we. I don’t know if Gregg Williams can say that. Or Johnny V. Or even the Big Boss depending on where this goes, but we’ll all still be here, covered in merch and dancing to songs we wrote, full of good food and drink, and taking it to the streets.
Chris, how could you not want to be here?!
SC: I may just have to pay a visit soon, sir. Save room on the couch for me. If you be my Chandler Parsons, I’ll be your Jeremy Lin.
Thanks again for the time and for letting us all into the mind and soul of a Saints fan during all this madness. Always a pleasure, brother, and keep reppin’ the old school.