New Orleans throws parades in times of celebration and moments of grief, and it's usually hard to tell the difference. On a wet morning last Friday the Edna Karr High School Marching Cougars led a procession up Poydras Street, halting traffic with their purple uniforms and gleaming horns. They stopped at the Superdome, followed by the vehicle they were escorting, an 18-wheeler from UPS hauling 47,000 pounds of maple wood flooring on which the Final Four will be played. "My heart hurts today," said the parade's grand marshal, Travis (T-Hustler) Lyons, as rain fell on his black fedora and green feather sash. "But this is what we do. We go to a parade. We go to a party. We have a drink. We worry about everything else tomorrow."
A season without Saints head coach Sean Payton, eight games without general manager Mickey Loomis, six games without linebackers coach Joe Vitt, two stripped second-round draft picks, a $500,000 fine and more punishment to come, all because of a bounty scandal that smudges a Super Bowl banner most of the world rooted for them to win—tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. Sure, New Orleans was just blindsided with the stiffest penalties in NFL history, but a hundred thousand college basketball fans are on the way and a good host never breaks down in front of the guests. Lyons pointed at the words on his sash: PERFECT GENTLEMEN.
New Orleans is America's ideal host city, happy to toast your Wildcats and Cardinals, Buckeyes and Jayhawks, and clean up after you leave in fresh commemorative gear. The BCS championship game was played at the Superdome in January, now the Final Four, and in 10 months the Super Bowl, an unprecedented dance card. "The Super Bowl is what we were really looking forward to," said Sir Sky, a construction worker assembling bleachers on the Dome floor. That game next February represented a chance to be more than hosts for once. But the Saints are not going to Super Bowl XLVII, unless Vince Lombardi is their interim coach, and they will need a jazz funeral to bury the dream. "I'm still not giving up on it," Sky said. "I could coach Drew Brees."
The front of the Saints' facility was boarded up last Friday, under construction. Brees, the star quarterback, is in a contract dispute with the club. Several free agents have already fled. Returning defensive players are bracing for their own suspensions. The three-year investigation continues into the slush fund created by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams—indefinitely suspended from his current team, the Rams—to pay players for injury-inducing hits. "With all the adversity we've had in our life, this ain't nothing," said Douglas Haywood, pastor at the New Israel Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward. "We came out winning before and we will again." As Haywood prepared for his Sunday sermon, he read a passage from Psalms 107, about redemption from the hand of the enemy. "In this case," the pastor said, "the enemy is the commissioner."
The severity of these penalties could set the Saints back five years, but without commissioner Roger Goodell, the Saints might not even be in New Orleans. Back in 2005, when Goodell was NFL COO and the Saints were riding out Hurricane Katrina in San Antonio, owner Tom Benson offered no guarantee they would return to the Crescent City. Goodell was the point person on Superdome renovations, the one who texted city leaders late at night: "Don't give up. We'll give whatever you need." Goodell might feel betrayed by the Saints, like a father with a wayward son, but few are more invested in them. The '09--10 Saints required no extra incentive because they played for the battered Gulf Coast, or so went the popular narrative. The team watched a tape in its Miami hotel the night before the Super Bowl, season highlights spliced with Katrina footage, and some cried softly. I know that because a Payton associate named Mike Ornstein told me, on the field at Sun Life Stadium, as the confetti dropped. Ornstein, the NFL revealed in its investigation, pledged donations to the bounty pool.
Modern champions are regularly sabotaged by their own flaws: the Red Sox by steroids, the Patriots by Spygate, USC by Reggie Bush, Ohio State by Maurice Clarett. A week before Super Bowl XLIV, I asked a Saints defensive tackle about his wild-eyed coordinator. "He wants you to f--- people up," the tackle said. We both laughed. New Orleans can make a joke out of anything, the FREE PAYTON T-shirts for sale just the latest example. Last Thursday in the New Orleans Arena, after a video tribute to Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who was making his homecoming against the Hornets, a fan yelled playfully, "Now put a bounty on him!" And when Saints punter Thomas Morstead walked into Ernst Cafe on South Peters Street last Friday, the bartender cracked, "No bounties for punters, right?"
To the Wildcats and Cardinals, Buckeyes and Jayhawks: Take care of your hosts this week. They are partying through pain.