Cersonsky: Saintly values

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In the midst of a reading response or an essay, I have a bad habit of clicking to ESPN.com and checking sports statistics. No matter my timetable, the mesmerizing stream of box scores is hard to resist. There’s no meaning to it; it’s a compulsion — a game.

If you’ve browsed ESPN.com recently, you’ve probably seen some headline to the effect of “New Orleans revels in Saints’ Super Bowl clincher” (Associated Press, Jan. 25). That’s right; the Saints are on their way to the championship game, and New Orleans is collectively happy about it. A football team has brought redemption to a broken city — a rousing reminder that sports are not merely sport.

It’s nothing new, and I get it. I was brought up on this stuff. John Elway, the hero of my parents’ Rocky Mountain homeland, was my hero. In 1998, the Broncos won their first Super Bowl, and, at least for a few weeks, life felt tremendous. The next year, they — we — started the season 13–0, before an existentially upsetting late-game loss to the Giants. I remember that day: My father and I alighted from our front-row living room seats, walked out into the cloudy Connecticut afternoon and shot baskets in silence. It was as if someone had died.

Nowadays, it’s different. Life at Yale is busy and complicated, and sports have been relegated to study breaks. I get a rise when the Broncos, Rockies and Nuggets win, but I can easily close my browser when the game ends.

In the universe of fandom, New Orleans is Yale’s avatar. Formerly home to the abashed paper-bag-clad mourners of the “Aints,” the Big Easy is rocking like it’s 2004. The damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Superdome displaced the Saints to Baton Rouge and San Antonio — and created a severe humanitarian crisis to boot. Five years later, the roof is patched, yet the city’s infrastructure remains leaky. Nonetheless, the Saints are in the Super Bowl, and there’s cause to rejoice.

Super Bowl XLIV is, at once, a lesson about the healing power of sports and an opportunity to reflect on how much cultural value they deserve.

Indeed, sports are both powerful and valuable. For every mindless stat-search, Roger Federer displays tennis mastery worthy of status as naturalistic art. The mere affairs of Tiger Woods destroyed as much trust as they did millions in advertising revenue. And virtue is as easy as where you drop the ball: “If you cheat at golf, you cheat at life.”

Like sex and religion, sports are deeply embedded in the human experience. To deem them shallow amusement is to misunderstand culture. Sports are irrational, but no more than the greenness of the grass, the idea of communal living spaces or love. And they are inevitable. President Obama will host Ramadan feasts, and he will attend White Sox games.

I would be kidding myself if I said otherwise. Were it not for the exigencies of college life, I wouldn’t have given away my television — and my sports programming — to a friend. Even so, one must take pause at the seeming reliance of a city’s self-esteem on its sports franchise.

The New Orleans business community has reason to be pleased about its team’s status. (Contrast that with the feeling in New Haven now that the Pilot Pen tennis tournament has left.) But the spiritual impact of Saintly success is less clear. Sports fandom provides happiness and meaning but, in a shattered city, pales in importance to job stability, education and democratic participation.

I wonder whether allegiance to the Saints is exclusive of identity as a civically engaged citizen of New Orleans, particularly for those with little energy — albeit mammoth incentive — to focus on the latter. In turn, I question whether fandom is deserving of the status and promotion which it is given.

At any given time, one must choose between CNN and ESPN. In light of Louisiana’s recent rating as the second-most politically corrupt state in the Union, coupled with New Orleans’ chronically low voter turnout, the choice is obvious. Celebration borne of common identity gives substance and value to human life — for Coloradoans displaced to suburban Connecticut, and for refugees of bayou homes. But to what should a collective direct its energy? Foremost, to itself — to the prospect of self-determination, and to a materially better life.

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.


  • Anonymous

    Agreed. James, I have to say you are one of the YDN’s best writers. Keep up the good work.

  • Anonymous

    This is interesting, though I have to wonder what you mean by “material” improvement. Perhaps this comes back to questions of where a team comes from — is “they” really the “us” of a diasporic state/national community? In other words, there’s some cogency in watching a native New Orleanian cheer on particularly those players whose names show that they’re really from New Orleans (that is, any big black guy with a name ending in “eaux,” etc.). Is his salary a way that the Saints’ success signifies bringing “material” rehabilitation to New Orleans? Or does the success of a sports team ask us to look beyond such reductive native boundaries to consider how non-natives can participate in group politics, i.e. how non-New Orleanian Brad Pitt, in part, now represents (ugly) new housing in the 9th ward. In other words, do sports allow us to choose our nation/state in a way which is prevented by more “serious” matters like citizenship and blood-origin? In conclusion, I’d draw your attention to the fact that one of the few times you will EVER see post-WWII, post-reunification Germans painting their faces with flags is during the Euro/World-cup. “Nation” is only flaunted in this particular, trivial context, and yet its relative openness to self-definition provides an antidote to the country’s otherwise draconian citizenship policies. As long as you can yell “Auf geht’s Poldy, schiess ein Tor!,” you’re part of the crowd. And maybe — so long as that crowd isn’t a mob — this is rehabilitative in its own right.

  • Anonymous

    James I often read your columns but thought this one was top notch. I hope that after the win yesterday, no one thinks Katrina is “over,” that all the people whose lives haven’t returned to normalcy aren’t lazy…(“After all, the SAINTS came back!”). Culture (and sports) has a complicated relationship with the wellbeing of a community and you bring out a lot of those ideas here in a very thoughtful way. So, I guess, thanks.