Realism in the Wake of Katrina
Not even once did you get the sense that the football game was the most important part of the evening.
For television, for big-time American sports television, that's saying something.
This is not an effort to stray into the territory of The Star's terrific TV and radio sports columnist Chris Zelkovich, but to watch ESPN's Monday Night Football as it attempted to cover the incredibly complicated story of the return of the New Orleans Saints to the Katrina-ravaged, expensively refurbished Superdome was fascinating stuff.
On his afternoon radio talk show yesterday, The Fan's Bob McCown led a spirited debate over the priorities of a city that had rebuilt a football stadium while thousands were still in temporary housing 13 months after the deadly hurricane hit the Gulf Coast and resulted in the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history.
How could $200 million be spent on the dome, McCown asked, when entire neighborhoods remained destroyed and unihabitable?
It was suggested by McCown and his round table partners that MNF would likely do what we've seen many times before, gloss over the bad stuff and focus on the football.
It was a good bet. But it didn't happen that way, much to the credit of ESPN.
Over the course of a 90-minute pre-game show and the 3 1/2 hour game between the Saints and Atlanta Falcons, the reality that New Orleans was still very much a city in distress was front and centre the entire time. In fact, there was a great deal of information on the precise state of the city, not just the precise state of the Saints.
Host Chris Berman had barely got the predictable suggestion that the Superdome is "a symbol of ongoing recovery" out of his mouth when football analyst Tom Jackson jumped in with "but there's still a lot of work to be done." Ex-QB Steve Young suggested that the game itself came "with an asterisk" because of the miles and miles of devastated city blocks that remained far from the dome.
Robin Roberts, a native of the Gulf Coast with a sister still in temporary New Orleans housing, gave the perspective that the people of the Crescent City were "so hungry after their lives have been shattered for something normal."
There was a long report showing Saints receiver Joe Horn visiting parts of the city that are being rebuilt, and parts that aren't, comparing the images of Katrina with the bitter childhood memory of he and his brother watching their family's trailer burn down.
There was a gloomy report on whether New Orleans, which has seen it's population basically halved by Katrina, can support an NFL team long-term with a population now less than Hamilton.
By the fourth quarter, the broadcast team of Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Joe Theismann was still making sure the game itself was being put into perspective. Tirico and Kornheiser were particularly focussed on this, even pushing filmmaker Spike Lee with some tough questions about whether governments had done enough to deal with the terrible human suffering in the city.
Lee, no stranger to aggressive public commentary, backed away from any controversy, but it was the ESPN guys who were doing the pushing.
"A year later. . .it's still not right here," was the only tepid offering from Lee.
Other than the hideous, grinning presence of ex-president George H. Bush, whose son's government was and has been so ineffective in reacting and dealing with Katrina, there was a real attempt to show all the different sides of the post-Katrina reality in New Orleans while still broadcasting a football game.
The concept of using a game and a team and a stadium as symbols of hope for the ravaged city while thousands have been unable to return to their homes 56 weeks after the storm was not an simple one to understand from afar.
The easy answer is to say ignore the circus and focus on the bread, and that's certainly not wrong. But would New Orleans, a socially challenged city before Katrina, be better off today if the stadium hadn't been fixed and the Saints hadn't been able to return and a North American TV audience hadn't had the terrible problems of The Big Easy brought into their living rooms last night?
It allowed musician Harry Connick Jr. to use TV as a platform to tell the world the best way to help New Orleans would be to start bringing their tourist dollars again.
It wasn't necessarily all meaningful, but it wasn't meaningless, either.