Only a game

Only a game January 8, 2007

This is a bit of a dilemma.

The Philadelphia Eagles won their first-round NFL playoff game yesterday, beating the New York Giants 23-20. So far so good.

Now they advance to the second round. Also good.

That means the Eagles will be heading to New Orleans to take on the Saints on Saturday night.

667a4e1ea5454d5f8b574c3e7436d1a3pobjminiAnd that's where it gets tricky. Rooting for the Eagles next week will mean rooting against the Saints and thus, to some degree, against the city of New Orleans. And after all they've been through that just seems wrong somehow.

Saturday night's game will be played in the Superdome — a building that was, less than two years ago, a refugee camp for people abandoned by several layers of criminally negligent government. It seems a bit off to be hoping for that same building to become the site of any more sadness for the people of that city.

I know, I know — it's just a football game. But I also know this: New Orleans needs this. How do I know that? Because Philadelphia needs this too. And, since Philly wasn't nearly destroyed and then left to die, I'm guessing that New Orleans maybe needs this a little bit more.

By "needs this" I'm not referring to the money involved. Another week, or month, of postseason hype probably does provide a bit of extra kick to a local economy. I'm sure someone, somewhere, has tallied or guesstimated all the economic benefits that Pittsburgh reaped last year when the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and there's something to that, I suppose. But I doubt that the city of Seattle suffered any meaningful economic hardship just because the Seahawks lost, and I doubt that the hometown of Saturday's losing team will suffer much economically either.

The financial stakes seem less significant than something much harder to quantify: morale. Winning a playoff game produces a vicarious pleasure of the least consequential sort — a pleasure unrelated to need or to meaning, but a pleasure nonetheless.

And it's a shared pleasure. A playoff run generates a perceptible buzz. It's ineffable, but undeniably real — something almost like that fuzzy sense of good will we call "Christmas spirit." When the hometown team is in the playoffs, people talk about it, even with people they don't normally talk to.

I'll admit to complaining about "bandwagon" fans during a team's lean years, when they seem to deserve scorn for their disloyalty as fair-weather friends, but I actually kind of like the bandwagon phenomenon. I like that, when a team gets into the playoffs, everybody gets on the bandwagon. Everybody. Even if it's only for something vicarious and of little real-world consequence, that's a Good Thing.

So I have a hard time wishing that New Orleans' bandwagon ride will come to an end next Saturday.

On the other hand, should the Saints continue to advance through the playoffs — reaching or even winning the Super Bowl — it will reinforce, for many Americans, the harmful notion that New Orleans is OK now, that it no longer needs our help, public and private, to rebuild and rise again. So in a sense, I suppose, the Eagles could help New Orleans by making sure this dangerously misleading notion spreads no further. The Eagles could help New Orleans by beating the Saints on Saturday.

If that happens, the people of New Orleans will learn something that the people of Philadelphia already know all too well: Losing a playoff game can bring a hometown together in the same way that winning one does. NOLA has had more than it's share of shared sorrows, and it hardly needs one more, but the shared sorrow of a playoff loss — because it is unrelated to consequence, to need or to meaning, and because it is shared — isn't entirely a Bad Thing.

(AP photo above by Ron Mihalek)

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