Neither answer tells the whole truth. Football also appeals to something more fundamental in my character, something worse: a desire for neat narrative arcs.
Football narratives are easy and dangerous. They gloss over details, the small and painful truths that make up a play, a game, a season, a life. You cheer for the “underdogs,” the “local kid made good,” ignoring the fact that the underdogs are all millionaires (for now) and the local kid is likely to retire in his early thirties and return to his hometown under-skilled, under-educated, and severely depressed. You laud the player who comes back from a dramatic injury, glossing over his motivations to sacrifice his body to a game. And you get behind a team because the city it hails from “needs a win,” though it likely needs much more than that.
The Sunday the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, I was in an airport, making a connection in Houston or Dallas or Memphis. I hadn’t watched the whole game, but I knew the outcome, and I recall two of my fellow travelers, strangers, passing each other on a moving walkway, both in Saints T-shirts. They grinned, greeting each other with the proud chant, “Who Dat?”
It was, even for someone who was pointedly not a Saints fan, a genuinely touching moment. I felt the tug of a compelling narrative: The city of New Orleans, still struggling to recover four years after Katrina, needed something to believe in. And the Saints, who had only recently stopped being a public embarrassment (their 1-15 1980 season was, until the 2008 Lions went 0-16, the worst an NFL team had ever produced), gave them just that.
I don’t want to underestimate the power of an uplifting arc, or the very real money that flowed to New Orleans when the Saints became playoff contenders. In 2006, just a year after Katrina had forced the team to play outside New Orleans, all home games in the refurbished Superdome, for the first time in franchise history, sold out on the strength of season tickets alone. But belief in a plucky, against-the-odds narrative made it easy ignore the season's dark undertones.
In March of this year, an investigation by the NFL uncovered evidence that Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams had run a bounty system over the past three seasons that rewarded players for injuring opponents—one of his PowerPoint presentations actually included an image of Dog the Bounty Hunter. Knocking a player out of a game earned you a $1,500 bonus; getting a player carted off the field was worth $1,000; payouts rose during the playoffs. One of the most memorable allegations to emerge was that defensive captain Jonathan Vilma had offered a cash reward of $10,000 to any player who knocked ageing Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Conference game. (Favre, a good ol’ boy to the last, has declared himself “pretty indifferent” on the subject.) NFL Commissioner Roger Godell suspended four players in connection with bounty scandal, though those suspensions were overturned earlier this month.
New Orleanians themselves have consistently embraced the “horror” of their team, maintaining an attitude of “optimistic fatalism” and defending them even (especially) now. But non-natives eager to jump on the bandwagon, to “feel the Brees,” to assuage guilt about the state of a city which, in late 2010, was still the site of 50,000 vacant houses, found it easier to streamline, to romanticize.
This season, the Saints are off to an 0-4 start. Already, they’ve lost twice at home, where they were undefeated last season. The first three losses came against teams who had losing seasons last year. Sunday’s loss to the Packers in Lambeau was an ode to poor follow-through: The Saints went 2-4 in the red zone, and kicked three field goals, missing one; the Packers, by way of contrast, were 4-5, and all four scores were touchdowns. And while Drew Brees remains a spectacular quarterback, tying Johnny Unitas’s record for most consecutive games with touchdown passes in the regular season, he functions best as the centerpiece of an offense, not as its only reliable component.
The team’s problems extend beyond the fact that its defensive players are no longer getting paid fairly small sums to take offensive players out. Certainly the fact that they now have an interim interim coach (both head coach Sean Peyton and former assistant, now interim, coach Joe Vitt are currently suspended in connection with the scandal) has not contributed to a consistent or winning strategy on either side of the ball.
The way in which the Saints narrative has played out—dramatic rise, ignoble fall—demonstrates the frailty of the redemptive stories we are all too eager to hang on a bunch of guys in spandex. When the Saints were playing well, fans old and especially new were happy to overlook what seemed, even at the time, distinctly brutal tactics on defense (after that conference game against the Vikings, two Saints players were fined $25,000 for three illegal hits on Favre.) Now that they’re doing poorly, their heartwarming narrative has been largely forgotten, and no one’s bothered to replace it with another arc, whether tragic or redemptive. Instead, we’ve transfixed by newer, more exciting news: the erratic performance of promising new quarterbacks; the replacement refs; the improbably impressive Vikings.
For a few seasons, rooting for the Saints meant rooting, by proxy, for a city that had been ravaged by natural disaster. And there’s something sinister about how quickly we were all willing to move on once the dramatic climax had been reached, the sentimental victory achieved, the symbolic enemy vanquished.