Super Bowl: With Saints not in, this town’s the Big Uneasy

Why We Wrote This

It is said that the test of true fandom comes not with victory but with defeat. Saints fans have met their latest trial with the relentless spirit of survival that has buoyed New Orleans after floods and hurricanes.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Julie Nevius, co-owner of J&J's Sports Lounge in New Orleans, chatted Jan. 30 about how her establishment will handle Super Bowl Sunday, since the city’s Saints NFL football team won't be playing.

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This Sunday, while much of the United States tunes into the Super Bowl, the big screen TVs at J&J’s Sports Lounge in New Orleans will show the Puppy Bowl and a recording of the hometown Saints’ Super Bowl win in 2010. Just two weeks ago, New Orleanians had high hopes that they’d be spending Super Bowl Sunday cheering for their beloved Saints. But all hopes were dashed on Jan. 20, when the Saints lost to the Rams following an egregious missed pass-interference call. Feeling robbed of the NFC Championship, die-hard fans took the defeat personally, the whole city seeming to howl in unison as they watched the game slip from their fingers in overtime. A congressman threatened hearings. Some fans filed lawsuits against the NFL. And following the advice of Saints quarterback Drew Brees to “keep your chin up, hold your head high, puff your chest out,” residents have rallied together to organize an impromptu Boycott Bowl, complete with second-line trumpets. That is, after all, how they mourn in this city of martyred saints.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton hid at his house, watching Netflix and eating ice cream.

Apparently an actual saint, quarterback Drew Brees shook off the NFC Championship loss 12 days ago, noting “I refuse to let this hold us down.”

In a much-shared post on Instagram, he advised Saints fans to “keep your chin up, hold your head high, puff your chest out because WE are the Who Dat Nation and WE will always persevere.”

That sentiment echoed the relentless spirit of survival that pervades every crooked corner of the city. For 300 years, New Orleans has stood strong, despite its low elevation and swampy isolation. It has endured embittered battles over slavery, river floods, yellow fever, and hurricanes. In 2005 hurricane Katrina – which killed 1,800 Louisianans and flooded 80 percent of the city – raised questions about the city’s viability. Instead, it rose up, staggering at times under stubborn poverty and a high rate of gun crimes.

That defiant endurance stems from a deeply rooted sense of pride in this place and the people who call it home – especially the Saints. So when fans saw the championship slip from their grasp, the entire city seemed to howl in unison. People ran into the streets to commiserate and deliver the news to shopkeepers working without televisions, their black and gold beads glinting in the sun.

For season ticket holder Joanne Palumbo, an egregious missed pass-interference call that ended the Saints’ Super Bowl bid has larger resonance in a city defined, at least in some ways, by natural disaster and human tragedy.

“It was a mistake that turned into an injustice,” says Ms. Palumbo.

Palumbo and everybody else knows this is just a football game. Yet the Saints’ victory in the 2010 Super Bowl, coming just five years after Katrina, forged a powerful bond between the black-and-gold squad and a sometimes violent city where police statistics suggest crime falls when the Saints are playing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Joanne Palumbo’s house is decorated for Mardi Gras, and with a Saints’ banner in support of the city’s NFL football team, in New Orleans on Jan. 30. To Ms. Palumbo, the missed call that altered the course of the NFC championship game Jan. 20 ‘was a mistake that turned into an injustice.’

Into that tableau Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman charged heedlessly.

In the Zapruder-like replay, Robey-Coleman can be seen clearly committing pass interference against Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis with a helmet-to-helmet hit. Robey-Coleman couldn’t believe his luck. He can be seen looking around for the flag after the hit.

The Saints kicked a field goal, but were forced to cede control of the clock – and ultimately the game, in overtime – to the Rams.

A congressman threatened hearings. A federal judge in New Orleans – somehow – managed to fit in a hearing Monday to hear the plaintive cries of righteous fans. (The fans’ pleas were denied Thursday.)

Invoking the national mood, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted that “maybe the post-truth era has found its post-truth sport.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards wrote to the league that New Orleans has “overcome setbacks much bigger than a bad call in a football game.” But, he warned, “We will not forget it.”

Fans, meanwhile, remain in a fugue. “No one has ever been in this situation before,” says Julie Nevius, co-owner of J&J’s Sports Lounge in the city’s Bywater neighborhood.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took the brunt of the heat. He broke his silence Wednesday, agreeing that “it is a play that should be called,” but noted that the rule book says games should not be overturned because of routine officiating errors. Besides, Mr. Goodell noted, a lot of people have been complaining about too many flags thrown – a fair barb.

Still, New Orleanians like to have the last word. Super Bowl players and attendees arriving in Atlanta for Sunday’s big game will be greeted by billboards around the airport reading “Saints got robbed” and “NFL bleaux it.”

Steam blown, fans like Palumbo are almost ready to move on.

Her mansion has been used myriad times as a movie and TV show set, including one drama that filmed mortal crimes in nearly every room, “including the bathtub.”

But today, a giant Saints banner hangs across her colonnades along with Mardi Gras baubles. “I’m losing sleep, but I also know full well that it’s just a game,” she says, almost believing it.

At J&J’s, Ms. Nevius points to various screens: When the Super Bowl airs this Sunday, the big screen will show the 2010 Super Bowl. Another big screen will show the Puppy Bowl. But despite the boycott mood, she admits that one smaller screen in the corner will be tuned to the game in Atlanta.

Since the Jan. 20 debacle, New Orleanians have raised tens of thousands of dollars to quickly plan and organize the Boycott Bowl, which should be in full swing on Sunday: bands, a parade, and second-line trumpets.

That is, after all, how they mourn in this city of martyred saints.

“It’s New Orleans,” says Nevius. “We make a party out of whatever.”

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