Saints And Salvation

03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No town needed a win like New Orleans. The triumphant battle of the Saints over the Vikings to win the NFC Conference Championship will be forever etched into this city's history. No sports franchise has experienced such a dismal life history. It took the club decades before it even finished a season with a winning record. This, of course, will be the team's first Super Bowl.

New Orleans still suffers from Katrina, the worst natural and man-made disaster in American history. Even though the French Quarter and Central Business District have come back to life, all were touched by that tragic hurricane. It remains on everyone's mind. It hangs over the city like a brooding omnipresence. Football, however, has brought salvation.

Those of us who love sports can understand the impact on the town and its people of this success on the field of play. We live for sports; we die, at least figuratively, with the failure of our teams, exalt in their victories, and spend days consumed by talk and thought about sport. Sports are not mere pastimes, like a good book, a cold beer or a conversation with a friend. Sports are an essential part of human life and health, and, for some, they seem to be life itself. We strongly identify with our favorite teams. An amalgam of myth, entertainment, wonderment, passion and exaltation, sports are quintessential human experiences and nothing less.

If this sounds overly dramatic, consider the evidence, as a lawyer might say. Psychologists have studied the impact on public mental health of a loss by the home team in an important game. It can result in a generalized depression in a community. Most recover in fairly short order, but for others the misery of defeat lasts until it is replaced by the thrill of victory. Cities with professional clubs that are perennial losers suffer continuously. Mediocrity is a cancer without a cure. A game is not only for now, but also a part of a sequence of contests that spreads back
over time.

A study released in 2009 of death rates on the day of the Super Bowl showed that a loss by the home team was related to a spike in the day-of-game death rates, mostly by heart attacks, as compared with days of games not involving the home team. On the other hand, a victory in the Super Bowl was correlated with a decrease in death rates. The research recommended the use of "pharmacologic agents" or relaxation techniques such as deep breathing for those persons with cardiac risk factors. Deep breathing, of course, will not lead your team to victory.

When our favorite teams win, the opposite occurs. As President John Kennedy, a great sports enthusiast, said: "We are inclined to think that if we watch a football game or a baseball game, we have taken part in it." We all are the champions and act as such, exhibiting triumphal behavior and a positive self-image in our interpersonal dealings, especially towards those who favored the team our club conquered on the field of play. We share in a communal euphoria. These are primal emotions that translate into civic pride, even if not one of the players on the winning team came from our town.

Economists have measured the effect of sport victories and defeats. Communal self-esteem fostered by sport triumphs enhances productivity, creativity and commerce; at the other end of the spectrum, entire regions suffer self-doubt and inferiority caused by losses at sporting contests; they experience declining economic indicators.

The Saints' victory has proven to the people of New Orleans (and others included in Saints Nation) that they are good and successful people. Folks in New Orleans have always shown that they know how to party, and they proved that again after the victory. As chance would have it, I was in The Big Easy this weekend to judge the Annual Baseball Arbitration Competition at Tulane University Law School. Although I wasn't actually inside the Superdome, the whole city felt like it was at the game. Twenty floors up in my hotel, I could hear the joyous partying until early this morning. Salvation had arrived.

New Orleans is the kind of place that invites all to share in the redemption of their sweet triumph, even if others had not experienced the misery and despair that came from losing.

Every club triumphs sometimes, but it normally doesn't take this long, and it is not compounded by the suffering imposed by nature and the human errors that reaped destruction on significant portions of this city. Fans always invested themselves in the Saints. They placed their sense of self-worth at risk, and finally they have triumphed. Watching the crowds last night on Bourbon Street, it seemed that football came very close to rapture.