Sure, the citizens of New Orleans are excited for Final Four weekend: it’s the fifth time the Big Easy has hosted the college basketball championship, and this is the city’s first Final Four since Hurricane Katrina. (The Final Four was last held in New Orleans in 2003). The Kentucky-Louisville match-up is a blessing: seas of rabid fans from the Bluegrass State, clad in blue (Kentucky) and red (Louisville), will make the somewhat reasonable 11-hour drive to New Orleans.
As if Kentuckians needed any more reasons to attend this Final Four – aren’t state-wide bragging rights enough? – the Louisiana Derby, a key prep race for the May 5 Kentucky Derby, is being held on Sunday, the day between the national semifinals and championship game.
The New Orleans Convention Bureau estimates that the Final Four will bring between $120-140 million in economic activity to the city. And while these types of estimates tend to be inflated, there’s no denying that the extra-foot traffic will benefit many businesses in this still-struggling city.
At the same time as New Orleans gets festive for the Final Four, however, the hard-luck city has taken yet another psychological beating, thanks to the bounty scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, and to a lesser extent, the struggles of the downtrodden New Orleans Hornets. A little over two years ago, the Saints were Super Bowl champs: the victory gave the city a spiritual lift that residents insist was real, not a media cliché. “We live for football,” Charlie Koehl, 53, a mechanic for Entergy, the energy company, said on Thursday while taking a break on Magazine Street. The Hornets, though they were in the early stages of a descent that would result in the NBA having to assume ownership of the team, and star point guard Chris Paul wanting to flee town, were coming off two straight playoff appearances and Paul was a favorite son.
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Now, the Saints are scandalous. The NFL suspended Sean Payton for a season because of his failure to stop New Orleans’ practice of giving players cash rewards for injuring opponents. He also misled NFL investigators about the bounty program.
And the Hornets are a pathetic 13-37, and no fun to watch.
“It just takes away from the spirit of the city,” says Darryl Davis, a construction worker. “It’s kind of gone.”
The struggles of the Saints are particularly painful. “There are so many bad things in this city,” says Darnell Marrero, a hotel bellhop. “The Saints are one of the good things, and with Payton being suspended, it’s like a family member being taken away.” New Orleans residents direct the frustration at both the Saints, and the NFL. “They should know better than to do that,” says Davis, talking about the Saints bounty program. “I really feel betrayed.” Davis no longer savors that Super Bowl title in the same way.
He’s far from alone. Many in New Orleans also feel NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s year-long suspension of Payton (which begins this Sunday April 1) was too severe. If the Saints don’t win under an unfamiliar interim coach – Bill Parcells, whom Payton may ask to take over, or anyone else – the fans will feel the most hurt. And they don’t need another kick in the gut.
The timing is unfortunate too: New Orleans is hosting the Super Bowl this season. Imagine if the Saints became the first home team to win the big game, in the Superdome, in the first New Orleans Super Bowl after Katrina? After the suspensions, that dream could be crushed.
“We got robbed,” says J.C. Charles, a taxi driver. “The commissioner better not go to the French Quarter when he’s here for the Super Bowl. Someone’s going to throw a beer in his face.”
New Orleans will welcome its guests this weekend. But sports doesn’t have the city smiling.