“I’m in the business of making sure that this city is a great place for people to live, to work, to play and the NFL has been a great partner for us. And we would not be able to have that partnership without Roger Goodell.”
--New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
“The progress that we made was threatened and in some ways, that could have been considered worse than losing the franchise.”
--Chris Webre, Saints fan
NEW ORLEANS -- When Roger Goodell arrives in New Orleans for this week’s Super Bowl, he may enter the city as the most polarizing of individuals, universally despised by those Saints fans who make up part of the population of the host city while being respected by those making decisions about the future of the region.
To those who make up the Saints’ fan base, Goodell is on par right now with the Army Corps of Engineers and the British in 1815, a man who they feel single-handedly destroyed the 2012 season and the reputation of the team and fans.
For those trying to maintain New Orleans as the tourism spot to go to in the country, Goodell is a friend and advocate, a man who can bring the sporting world’s biggest one-day event to it time and again.
Bringing the Superdome back
Doug Thornton remembers Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath like it happened just the other day.
He remembers sleeping in his office at the Superdome and flying away on the first day of September 2005, thinking the building he helps maintain as senior vice president of SMG would never be used again.
He remembers in the weeks after realizing that the building could be rehabilitated. But he needed help. He needed NFL assistance.
Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue came to New Orleans in December of that year, getting a tour of the city, the Dome and the Saints practice facility in Metairie.
It took him just that visit to know what he wanted to do and how he wanted to help.
And he knew just the man to make sure his vision and Thornton’s would come to fruition – Roger Goodell, one of Tagliabue’s right-hand men.
After Saints owner Tom Benson finally decided to keep the team in New Orleans, the NFL targeted September 2006 for the franchise to re-open the Superdome.
But the schedule was tight.
As usual, though, bureaucratic red tape got in the way. Thornton had a project worksheet for the nearly $100 million venture ready to go. He even had a construction crew set to put hammer to nail. It just needed approval.
Yet, the PW, as it’s called, bogged down in Washington, where it had to go through the “million dollar queue,” a 14-agency massage that takes time and effort.
There was no time to waste, not even minutes, Thornton said.
“I remember emailing Roger over the weekend and I called him on Sunday at home,” Thornton said. “I called him and he says, ‘Tell me exactly what you need. Put this in a short memo to me.’ ”
Goodell and Tagliabue, Thornton was told, were heading to Washington to meet with some of the Louisiana Congressional delegation. They would talk, Thornton was told.
Two weeks later, with a much-reduced Mardi Gras Day celebration overtaking the few who had remained or returned to New Orleans, Thornton received a call from FEMA that changed everything.
The project was approved. Recalled Thornton, “(The FEMA official) said, ‘Record time. We’ve never had one go through that quickly. I don’t know what the heck you did.”
Eight months later, the Saints were emotionally opening the building against Atlanta.
“I immediately called Roger to let him know,” Thornton said. “I asked him, I said, ‘What’d you do?’ He said, ‘We went down to talk to (David) Vitter, to talk to (Mary) Landrieu.’ I can’t remember exactly how he said this, but I got the impression they went way above. I could never verify who they talked to.”
It wasn’t the first time Goodell had been a friend. In 2002, after 9/11, the NFL pushed the Super Bowl back a week and that meant a conflict in New Orleans. He helped relocate the National Automobile Dealers Association convention, setting up the Crescent City to host the first big event after the terrorist attacks in New York.
But getting the Superdome up and running, and helping to make sure five FEMA representatives were part of the project (as Thornton had requested), was bigger for the city.
Fans have a right to be upset
And yet, for all that Goodell did nearly seven years ago, the fans still have a bad taste in their mouths from what happened this past year.
Under Goodell’s direction, the NFL investigated the Saints for what it believed to be a pay-for-injury program administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
When all was finished, Williams was suspended from the league indefinitely. Head coach Sean Payton was booted from the NFL for a year, as was linebacker Jonathan Vilma. General manager Mickey Loomis was handed an eight-game suspension while assistant head coach Joe Vitt was given a six-game break. Defensive end Will Smith earned a four-game suspension and former New Orleans defenders Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita got eight-game and three-game suspensions.
Additionally, the Saints were docked second-round picks in both the 2012 and 2013 NFL draft and fined $500,000.
While not necessarily a causation, it would be easy to say there was a correlation between the bounty scandal and the tangled wreckage that was the just-completed 7-9 season that included a missed playoff berth for the first time since 2008.
Though none of the players ended up missing any playing time – an appeals panel overturned Goodell’s original ruling and Tagliabue, serving as special counsel, vacated the player penalties – Saints fans still hold the commissioner accountable.
To the fans who span all walks of life, there has never been full proof presented showing them the NFL had the Saints dead to rights and that their heroes were the devils they were told they were.
“I guess there’s anger in that they went forward with a mandate rather than based on evidence and a clear flaunting of the rules,” said Saints fan Andrew Harrington, who works in the local movie industry.
Added Chris Webre, a physical therapist in town, “While we thank the NFL and we thank Paul Tagliabue and Goodell’s role in doing that, that doesn’t necessarily excuse the way he handled this situation. The notion that Saints fans are being petty, small and myopic for feeling the way Saints fans feel is the wrong way to look at it.”
Therein lays one of the biggest problems Saints fans have right now. They’re being told to move on, urged to let Goodell enter the Parish without knowing just how much he affected their year.
It’s not just about the players, they say. It’s also about the ones who pay for tickets and buy the jerseys and paraphernalia and make the NFL as popular as it is.
“It just kind of tosses the Saints fans aside,” Webre said. “Even though you pay for the tickets, even though you go to the games, even though people say you’re the greatest fans in the world, you don’t have a right to be upset. What you’re feeling is wrong. What you’re feeling is misdirected. Eh, just get over it.
“It’s not really something to get over. It’s something to move on from. But it’s not something to get over.”
The Saints still were able to have their seventh consecutive sellout for season tickets this year. But 2012 being what it was after the Saints became one of the league’s elite teams, winning a Super Bowl and three NFC South titles since 2005, there was a fear of going back to doormat days of old because of the penalties.
“The way he handled the bounty situation could have meant not the demise of the franchise, but that all of the progress the franchise has made post-Katrina could have been negated by all of this,” Webre said.
Restaurant owner Maximilian Ortiz looks at Goodell similarly to Webre and Harrington. He appreciates all that Goodell has done in the past for the city. But he’s still uncomfortable with how 2012 was handled by the league’s highest office.
“While he did play a role in helping to keep the Saints in New Orleans after Katrina, that does not give him a pass when it comes to the ‘Bounty’ scandal,” Ortiz said. “Would you praise the man who helped you rebuild your house if he burned it down seven years later? Absolutely not.
Sympathizing with the commissioner
If there’s anyone who understands Goodell’s involvement in helping New Orleans recover from the largest American man-made disaster, it’s former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
She worked hand-in-hand with Tagliabue and Goodell. She knows just how much Goodell was on the ground, helping move the Superdome project forward.
And she knows one thing that she says is fact.
“Let’s just say if it wasn’t for Roger’s good work, I think that we might not be having this discussion because there was a serious possibility that the Saints could have gone to San Antonio if we had not been able to get the facility up in time for them to play their first game of the 2006 season in New Orleans,” Blanco said one day recently.
Blanco still lives in the state and still calls herself a Saints fan. She, too, was upset to find out what the Saints were accused of running.
But she understands the position Goodell was in.
“Listen, I can sympathize with Roger because when I made the decision to get the Dome back up, the same screaming voices were screaming at me saying I had their priorities, that I should not be focusing on the Superdome,” Blanco said.
As commissioner of the league, Goodell has been tasked with keeping it viable for a long time and that includes the safety of the players. With more information becoming available on concussions and their affect on players post-career and with the hundreds of lawsuits by thousands of former players against the NFL, Goodell couldn’t be looking at the Saints case with just that one event in mind.
The penalties came down to Goodell alone – certainly a point of contention among Saints fans – and that’s a difficult position to be in, Blanco said.
“Roger found himself in a really bad place in having to make some really tough decisions,” Blanco said. “He wanted to make it clear, I assume, that he wouldn’t tolerate this behavior, that the NFL would not tolerate this behavior. He was representing lots of owners, of course, when he makes these decisions. At the same time we all thought it was a little harsh.”
Going back to Katrina, there was a reason the Superdome was put back together when it was – after being a symbol of despair, officials wanted it to become a symbol of a different kind.
And, economically, it could be the engine to drive the rebirth of a great American city.
“From my perspective, the Saints were a big piece of the economic recovery,” Blanco said. “The Dome was a critical component. It had been a symbol of despair. In the nine month period we had to get it back up in, it became the symbol of hope.”
When it opened on Sept. 27, 2006 with an emotional concert by U2 and Green Day and an even more intoxicating 23-3 win over NFC South rival Atlanta, Goodell was there.
“That was the most exciting game I think the NFL had ever played,” Blanco said. “I know it was the most exciting game that the Saints had ever played. The Saints won and the city was lifted.”
In other words, Goodell knows just what the Saints mean to the city.
“He understands the value of this city to the NFL and he has been such a huge partner for us for a long period of time,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “Every time I’ve called on him, he has been of assistance.”
In the time since, New Orleans has hosted two BCS championship games, an NCAA men’s Final Four and an NFC championship game. The Superdome has become the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and is set to host the Super Bowl next Sunday.
That’s not enough. New Orleans wants more and it wants more of the NFL.
“When you get into the business of what we’re doing, you’ve got to get beyond all that stuff and not let one thing bleed into the other,” Landrieu said. “I’m in the business of making sure that this city is a great place for people to live, to work, to play and the NFL has been a great partner for us. And we would not be able to have that partnership without Roger Goodell.
He added, “Which is why it’s very important for everybody to rise above what happened on or didn’t happen on the field last year and think about the bigger picture because I fully expect to be competing for future Super Bowls. It puts a lot of people to work. Its’ very, very important and Roger has been a great friend and a great advocate in that regard and we should treat him that way.”
Don’t expect anything to happen
Landrieu has spent time lately trying to get out the message that Goodell should be treated respectfully in his visit to New Orleans.
Blanco also recognizes that Goodell is an important partner for the city to keep, saying, “It’s time to put all that behind us and move forward. I know that we’re going to move forward with Roger Goodell and the NFL working with us. The commissioner is an important person in the world of NFL football. We want to have a good relationship with him.”
Ultimately, it’s up to those living in the city to do what they do best – play gracious hosts. And Webre, the physical therapist, doesn’t expect anything different.
“I really don’t think so,” Webre said. “I think here in New Orleans, we yell and scream a big game. I think as far as the big picture, I think people understand that based on his actions with this, if there’s one kind of over the top thing, it does mean as long as he’s commissioner it’s the end of the Super Bowl here. That would be sad because universally sports writers and visitors say this is the place to have it.”
But Webre also knows that Goodell won’t get away unscathed, that he won’t leave New Orleans without fully understanding what affect the commissioner has had.
“Do I think someone may yell something inappropriately to him?” Webre said. “I can see that happening. If he’s out in public on a stage, do I think he’s going to get a less-than-warm reaction? Yes. He’s going to get booed. … If it’s that, that’s OK. I think fans have a right to express frustration with him.”