One of the most hospitable cities in the world is once again welcoming one of the signature tourist events to town this week.
The Super Bowl is coming to New Orleans for the 10th time, and the first time in a long time — 11 years to be exact.
New Orleans prides itself on being the gold standard for hosting big events such as this, largely because of the citizens’ collective hospitable attitude borne from generations of throwing the greatest free party on earth.
Whether it’s Mardi Gras, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Essence Festival, Sugar Bowl, BCS Championship, Final Four, Bayou Classic or the Super Bowl, everyone from the mayor to wealthy business owners to service industry leaders and workers prides themselves on showing visitors a good time and making them feel at home.
Then this Goodell guy had to come along, and The City That Care Forgot is having a heck of a time forgetting.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the guy in charge of this whole Roman Numeral bacchanal, is the same guy who dished out a remember-me hit to New Orleans last spring when he suspended Saints coach Sean Payton and four others in the organization for their roles in the team’s bounty program.
Whether Goodell’s investigation was by the book or not, whether the sanctions against the Saints were just or not, and what role Goodell’s punishment played in the Saints’ slide to 7-9 is all subjective.
But the fact remains that Goodell is persona non grata to a whole bunch of Who Dats.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu felt compelled at a luncheon hosted by the New Orleans Super Bowl Host Committee a couple of weeks ago to plead to his constituents to “mind their P’s and Q’s” and be on their best behavior.
He reminded New Orleanians that Goodell was former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s right hand as the NFL dedicated itself to keeping the franchise in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
But this is more of a look-at-what-you’ve-done-to-us-lately kind of deal.
At least two Mid-City bars have posted dartboards bearing Goodell’s picture, and other bars and restaurants are featuring Goodell’s image on a sign that says, “Do not serve this man.”
In reality, the neighborhood places frequented by the most passionate of Who Dats aren’t going to be on any commissioner’s itinerary.
Mike Serio, owner of Serio’s Po-Boys & Deli downtown, said he’d serve Goodell, but he doubts he’ll see the commissioner.
“We’re more of a working-man’s place,” Serio said.
He added that it’s time to “let bygones be bygones,” though he knows not everyone feels the same way.
“There are still a lot of (angry) people, including one of my employees,” Serio said. “If he walks in, she would chew his head off. If he does come in, I hope she’s off that day.”
Places with a better chance of seeing Goodell — such as Galatoire’s in the French Quarter, which has several NFL parties booked — seem to be taking a bigger-picture approach.
“Everybody in town loves the Saints and coach Payton, and it’s unfortunate what happened,” Galatoire’s co-owner Bill Kearney said. “But if Commissioner Goodell comes into Galatoire’s, we will treat him as we would any other valued patron.
“We serve celebrities, government officials and people of notoriety all the time.”
For those in the hospitality industry, treating visitors well is a given. But this situation is unique, although Goodell’s decision to reinstate Payton last week, nearly two weeks ahead of schedule, may have mitigated hostility toward him.
“This was all coordinated,” said WWL Radio commentator Bobby Hebert, a former Saints quarterback and self-proclaimed “Founding Father of the Who Dat Nation.”
“This was perfect timing and a good gesture going forward. It’s like they’ve extended the olive branch to Who Dat Nation.”
Or, as one restaurateur put it, “He did it to save his (behind) before he came to New Orleans.”
Payton did his part to calm the waters during a news conference the day after he was reinstated.
“Look, the most important element here is closure and us moving forward,” Payton said. “We’ve got so many other challenges that all of us in our own personal lives and our professional lives, move on and we get on to the next challenge.”
Payton said he thinks New Orleanians should be as “gracious” to Goodell as they traditionally have been to all Super Bowl visitors.
“I think the things coach Payton said were very helpful,” said James Carville, co-chair of the host committee. “We need to put this behind us and move on. Everybody is excited that coach Payton is back. You can’t unring a bell.
“I fully expect everybody in Louisiana and New Orleans to realize that, when you have a guest in your house, you treat them right and you’re nice to them. I think it will go well. We want to have these folks back.”
Carville said there’s no way of knowing if “one cooyon” might try to be disrespectful toward Goodell, but it’s unlikely the commissioner will be rubbing elbows with that many cooyons.
“This is no time for petty stuff,” Carville said. “We have a job to do. We want to be hospitable. It’s what we do.”
Carville said Goodell was a friend of his before the Payton suspension, and he remains one even if “I didn’t necessarily agree with the remedy.”
Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, which has a location inside the Baltimore Ravens hotel — the Riverside Hilton on Poydras — talked about “the greater good” as the NFL is looking to award the Super Bowl after the 2017 season in the not-too-distant future.
“Do I like what he did to our Saints? No,” he said. “But I clearly understand that he is a very important guy who has the ability to very much influence whether or not we get another Super Bowl in about five years, and I want New Orleans to get it.
“I understand what hospitality stands for. What the people of New Orleans have to understand is this is our livelihood. We want these people to come back. The last thing we need is one negative thought coming out of New Orleans — whether it’s crime or a dirty interstate, whatever. What’s best for us as a community is to welcome everyone with open arms and show that we’re big people, we wear big-boy pants. We can take whatever happens.”
There’s no way to quantify what effect Payton’s absence had on the Saints, though Cvitanovich, who feeds the team oysters every Friday night before home games, said even in that casual setting “you could see something was missing.”
But Payton is back as Saints coach, and New Orleans is back as a Super Bowl site.
“This is really, really important,” Cvitanovich said. “We do it for every other event. We do it for the Final Four and the BCS (Championship), the NBA All-Star Game, huge conventions. We always put our best foot forward, and this should be no exception. In fact, even more so we need to do that.
“New Orleans gets enough negative publicity from our politics. We don’t need any more.”
Carville said one of his favorite moments in history occurred before the British Royal Navy’s historic victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when Admiral Lord Nelson told the men on his flagship, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
“I hope everyone in New Orleans will do their duty,” Carville said. “I know I plan to.”
Advocate sportswriters Sheldon Mickles and Ted Lewis contributed to this report.
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