Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Ain'ts that a shame

I have been a New Orleans Saints fan since the Saints came to be in 1967.

Throughout most of the NFL franchise's history, wins were few, far between and usually gotten by hook or by crook.
Well, what you gonna do, Cap? Dem's the Ain'ts for you.

Then came Katrina. We weren't sure we'd have New Orleans to kick around anymore, much less the Ain'ts. And after a disastrous 2005 season played entirely on the road, after all the rumors that owner Tom Benson was going to take the franchise to San Antonio, after the dicey proposition that was the Crescent City itself, we weren't sure we gave a damn.

Then something happened.

The Saints stayed . . . got a new coach and a new quarterback. The newly repaired and renovated Superdome reopened.

The reopening of the dome became a metaphor for the rebuilding of a city. And when the Saints won that 2006 home opener against the archrival Atlanta Falcons, it was pure catharsis for anyone who ever called south Louisiana home.

And when "Dem Boys" kept winning, well. . . .

And during that magical season three years later --
that championship 2009 season -- we thought it was some kind of miracle of God. Some kind of salve for the years of suffering by a city defined as much by its agonies as its ecstasies.

Long-suffering fans shed tears of joy when the Saints beat the Vikings and pigs flew. When hell froze over. When "Saints" and "Super Bowl" could coexist in a sentence devoid of both irony and the word "never."

And on a February day in 2010, many of us wept for joy as time expired on four-plus decades of futility. New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17. Saints . . .
Super Bowl champs.

But I'm from Louisiana. I should have known better, formed as I was by a land where "crook" was far more common than "hook."

THESE DAYS, redemption songs and impossible dreams are as likely as anything else to be nothing more than just another g**damned lie.

Peter King, in the latest issue of
Sports Illustrated, disavows us of our illusions:
On Saturday nights during the 2009 NFL season, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the lightning-rod leader of a feisty unit, would stand in front of his men holding white envelopes filled with cash—bonuses for their performances the previous week. As Williams called up player after player, handing them envelopes with amounts ranging from $100 for a special teams tackle inside the opponents' 20-yard line to $1,500 for knocking a foe out of the game, a chant would rise up from the fired-up defenders: "Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!"

Many players would do just that, to beef up the pot and make the stakes bigger as the season went on. The NFL alleges that by the time New Orleans reached the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings on Jan. 24, 2010, the stakes had risen to the point that middle linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma personally offered a $10,000 bounty to any player who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the game. (SI's attempts to reach Vilma were unsuccessful.)

Over four quarters that Sunday at the Superdome, Favre was hit repeatedly and hard. The league later fined Saints defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove a total of $25,000 for three separate improper hits, and NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said the Saints should have been flagged for a brutal high-low mashing by McCray and defensive lineman Remi Ayodele in the third quarter. Favre suffered a badly sprained left ankle on that play and had to be helped off the field. On the New Orleans sideline, Hargrove excitedly slapped hands with teammates, saying, "Favre is out of the game! Favre is done! Favre is done!"

An on-field microphone directed toward the sideline caught an unidentified defender saying, "Pay me my money!"

Favre returned to the game but was hobbled. The Saints won 31–28 in overtime, and two weeks later they defeated the Colts 31–17 in Super Bowl XLIV, a victory for an embattled city that was one of the most uplifting moments in recent NFL history. But the excessive hits on Favre in the title game, and on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner a week earlier in New Orleans's 45–14 divisional playoff victory, prompted an off-and-on two-year league investigation that culminated last Friday in a caustic and blistering report implicating Williams and Saints players in a pay-for-performance program that operated far outside the bounds of league rules. The report also said that general manager Mickey Loomis was made aware of the allegations about the program in early 2010, denied knowledge of it and said he would ensure that no such program was in place, and that coach Sean Payton was also aware of the allegations but failed to look into them. (Loomis and Payton did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the weekend.)

The discipline handed down to Williams, Payton, Loomis and several players will likely dwarf the Patriots' punishment in the infamous Spygate scandal in 2007. In that case the league fined the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick $750,000 and docked New England a first-round pick for illegally videotaping opposing sidelines. Judging by the outrage emanating from the NFL's New York City offices over the weekend, the Saints' sanctions could be closer to the yearlong suspensions given to stars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung in 1963 for gambling. Discipline is expected to be announced within the month.

For commissioner Roger Goodell, player safety has become a top priority, and nothing could undermine that more than cash incentives for players to injure their opponents. One source close to Goodell said the commissioner's reaction to the initial reports of the bounties in the 2009 playoffs was, "God forbid this is true. This will be earth-shattering."

In football circles, it is. The NFL charges that over the past three seasons, between 22 and 27 Saints participated in a bounty program administered by Williams and by leading players that paid defenders for specific achievements on the field, including injuring opponents. The program reportedly paid $1,500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1,000 for a "cart-off"—forcing a player to be helped off the field—as well as lesser rewards for individual plays. During the playoffs, the league said, the sums increased. Such bounties not only circumvent the NFL's salary cap, as extra off-the-books compensation, but also violate the NFL's constitution and by-laws and the collective bargaining agreement, all of which state, "No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on-field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to, or injuries inflicted on, opposing players)."

In a statement on Friday, Goodell said, "It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety, and we are not going to relent."

YOU KNOW, it wasn't just fair play, player safety and the National Football League that the Saints betrayed here. They betrayed a city, too.

But wait! There's more!

Not only that, the likes of Williams, Payton, Loomis, Vilma and the rest betrayed generations of fans who had suffered with decades of their lovable-loser forebears. They betrayed our dreams and our loyalty.

They, for good measure, betrayed the power of metaphor. And finally, they betrayed the virtue of hope.

Why am I not surprised that the "home team" bears a striking resemblance to generations of crooked Louisiana pols who have taken a state with enormous natural riches and left it the poor man of America? Time after time -- generation after generation -- it has been the fate of Louisiana's sons and daughters to bear yet another betrayal and vow yet again that we won't be fooled again.

Just another brick in a wall of g**damned lies, alas.

I GUESS we could hope that Goodell might mete out penalties worthy of the crime -- of the betrayal -- but, after all, we are from Louisiana, and justice would be too much to hope for.

If coaches were banned for life and the Saints front office got what it truly deserved, too many people would lose too much money. And if growing up in the Gret Stet has taught us anything. . . .

Man up, Drew. Something tells me you're gonna get Favred this season -- for free.

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