I’ve been reading this past week about the investigation into the Saints offering bounties to take out opposing players.
If you read this column, you know I’m a Saints fan. A big one, and a vocal one. Not too long ago, I earned my 15 minutes of fame writing about the ill will of 49ers fans at the January play-off game in San Francisco, a story that was reprinted in several newspapers and made the rounds online.
I railed against bad sportsmanship and raised questions about things like integrity and aggression.
At its core, it was a column about the need for all of us to be good human beings.
And then I click on nola.com and read that Saints defensive players had a pool of up to $50,000 that was used to pay bonuses for removing opponents from the field, with offers of $1,500 for a “knock-out” and $1,000 for a “cart-off.”
According to the NFL investigation, “Players were willing and enthusiastic participants in the program, contributing regularly and at times pledging large amounts.” Twenty-two of 27 defensive players participated over a three-year period.
I felt crushed. I fundamentally had believed that the Saints were the good guys. The ones wearing white hats. The larger-than-life warriors saving the city.
Stewart and I — like most of you – have often talked about how important the Saints have been in rebuilding New Orleans post-Katrina. They united us. They made us feel like part of the team. They were visible in the community and vocal about its needs.
The Saints gave New Orleanians common ground at a time when we needed causes and people to rally around. They gave us purpose, and a shared sense of camaraderie. They made us a community.
We were them. They were us.
Now I don’t know if I want them to be us any more. People who see the value in being rewarded for hurting other people?
Much has been written about the bounty practice. Even Brett Favre, allegedly the one with a Saints $10,000 price tag on his head, shrugged it off as just another aspect of a very physical game.
The New York Times on Sunday interviewed NFL players who agreed: Paying for big plays happens in virtually every locker room in the country, they said.
I’ll leave the finger pointing and the discourse about blame and punishment to other writers. To me, the salient point is that I thought the Saints were better than other teams. And not just on the field.
I thought their deep emotions for the city reflected, in a real way, who they were as human beings. I thought the Saints, in general, were better and more caring individuals than their counterparts elsewhere. When the New England Patriots’ spygate shenanigans unspooled a couple of years ago, I recall feeling a little superior. The Saints would never stoop so low.
A few years back, I ran into a friend who lived near a former Saints player I particularly admired, and was disappointed to hear her say she often heard him cursing loudly at the drugstore they both frequented. When he went to another team, I was sort of relieved.
I was naïve, I know. How many times have celebrities proved that idols generally have feet of clay? And we will still love our team, just as we would a child who falls short of our expectations. You’re going to continue to love him, even as you punish him.
But still. When people you’ve looked up to turn out to be, well, human, it’s always a surprise. You shouldn’t expect them to be better, or morally superior, or more resistant to temptation.
But you do. And when they don’t live up to your expectations, you feel a little like those opposing players.
Like you’ve been punched in the gut.
Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, is editor of NolaVie.