Last week in this space I wrote about our upcoming Saints road show.
Now, on the other side of our San Francisco trip, I’m thinking it was more of a goad show.
San Francisco fans are rough customers. Goading anyone in black-and-gold garb was as much a part of 49er game-day amusement as waving fan flags and downing superdogs.
“I think I know how Marie Antoinette felt on the way to the guillotine,” I told Stewart as we strolled through the 49er tailgating lot pre-game. The unwavering chorus of boos was punctuated by shouted taunts both clever (“WE dat!”) and blunt (“Go home!”).
We’d been warned that 49er fans are among pro football’s most obnoxious. But for those of us who have suffered Chicago Bears fans’ baiting for years (remember those dirty snowballs?), we thought we were pretty inured to the rough stuff.
But the 49ers take fan intimidation to new levels. Really.
Losing in such a dismal way was bad. The game was tense, an emotional roller-coaster, full of stress and nail-biting drama. Still, it was an exhilarating thrill ride for fans on both sides.
Standing at the top of Section 17 with a group of friends, momentarily separated by the masses from Stewart, I paused … and became an unwitting stationary target for the flow of San Francisco fans. By the dozens, they thrust their faces into mine and shouted: LOSER. GET ON A PLANE. WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE. YOU SUCK.
They weren’t flaunting their win, but hurling insults. It was aggressive and threatening.
It wasn’t just me, either. I talked to numerous Saints fans who weathered the same.
In the upper reaches, one Saints backer reported being the target of Katrina comments and F bombs. Another texted me during the game: “Getting crazy heckled.”
Another acquaintance reported that she saw one 49er fan evicted for violence, and a second arrested after he lighted up a joint in broad daylight. Near us, a fan was asked to give up her red 49er cloth, handed out at the gate. When she said she planned to keep it as a souvenir, it nearly started a brawl.
Abuse was unisex, too. “I think the women were worse than the men,” said one black-and-gold fan after the game.
When did pro football turn into a gladiator sport? If there had been a lion or two handy, more than one of us in black and gold would have been showing a bloody trail of claw marks across our backs.
Back at our hotel, where talk continually turned to the battering both on and off the field, one woman claimed she had received a pre-game post from the Saints, advising fans to cover their fan garb with black outer garments to avoid being harassed.
As season ticket holders, Stewart and I have seen our share of fan-taunting in the Superdome. I have no doubt that visitors to New Orleans have taken home more bitter keepsakes than big-ass beer mugs or a box of pralines.
And college football can be even worse. Just ask any SEC opponent who has sat in a predominantly purple-and-gold section of Tiger Stadium (“I feared for my life,” one coed told me after a Vanderbilt/LSU match-up a few years back).
Still, Stewart makes a point of shaking hands with people attired in opposing colors at the Dome. “Thanks for coming to New Orleans,” he tells them. “We appreciate your choosing to come here and spending your money here.”
I’ve seen more than one letter to the editor in The Times-Picayune, thanking the New Orleans people for their hospitality.
And that’s the point. San Francisco has a tourist economy, too. The guy wearing the Brees jersey in front of us at Candlestick Park had flown in from Florida. At breakfast Saturday morning, the table next to us held a group of 10 Saints fans from Baton Rouge. I chatted with black-and-gold spectators not only from New Orleans, but also Los Angeles and the Mississippi Gulf coast.
We shopped, we dined, we stayed in nice hotels.
San Francisco fans have been warned before of their aggressive behavior. During a pre-season game at Candlestick Park in August, there was a beating in the restroom, a brawl in the stands, and two fans shot in the parking lot (one, allegedly wearing a F— the Niners t-shirt, was in critical condition the next day in a local hospital). Granted, the opponents in that instance were the hated Oakland raiders, but fan fury seemed perilously near similar levels against the Saints on Saturday.
For this division playoff game, the police presence at Candlestick Park was augmented by 25 percent, and local papers reported that San Franciscans were “well-behaved” after the win. They may well have been outside the gates of Candlestick Park. (Inside, 20 people were arrested during the game and “numerous” others expelled by police.)
Back at our hotel, a local couple sitting adjacent to us at the bar, overheard our comments concerning ill-treatment by the fans.
“I can’t believe that,” protested the woman. “We had a lovely conversation with the Saints couple behind us.”
I’m sure she did. We had some cordial conversations, too. But what she should have said to us was, “I’m so sorry.”
Because until good people take responsibility for bad ones, things aren’t going to change. And that’s just as true in New Orleans as it is in San Francisco.
“I love San Francisco and I’ve been here many times,” one Saints fan told me. “But I won’t be back.”
And that’s a shame. It’s a great city, with great people — with the exception of some of its football fans.
So to traveling Giants fans, I offer some advice. Pack your battle garb. And wear your thickest skin.