Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The rollercoaster ride to redemption

Throughout the past week the feeling among the residents has been a mixture of elation and nervous anticipation. Several sports memorabilia and T-shirt shops were served with cease and desist letters a week ago by lawyers representing the National Football League. The recipients of the letters included several mom and pop shops that protested the action along with outraged fans. The lawyers claimed that the NFL and the New Orleans Saints organization had trademarked the term "Who dat?" and fans who had been using that cry to rally the team for decades took umbrage and offense over the suggestion that their phrase could be laid claim to like a caveman might take a wife. The term "who dat?" has had a rich history, having been traced back to minstrel shows of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Various individuals have claimed to have been at the onset of the popularity of the phrase, some stating it was used traditionally by Cajuns, while others suggested it began outside of the state in nearby Mississippi. More recently the cheer, if we can call it that, was used as a taunt in the mid-1980s by a local high school football team that had racked up some impressive wins. That corresponded to the rise of the Saints organization as a contender in the NFL rather than the Aints of earlier days when embarrassed fans wore paper bags on their heads, espying the games through cutout holes. Several fans began to use the cry "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat?" at games, but then it began to snowball after local sportscaster and New York Mets legend Ron Swoboda oversaw a recording session with several New Orleans Saints football players and local legend Aaron Neville one evening. The songwriters incorporated the "who dat?" cheer into the traditional Dixieland favorite "When the Saints Go Marching In" with a catchy New Orleans "second line" backbeat. The record took off like a rocket and was heard over the local airwaves for much of the last two decades and more. For the NFL to claim ownership of the term as an intellectual property was a bit of a reach and the fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Even high profile politicians like Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter invited the football league to challenge him, promising he would be printing up T-shirts for his electorate with the "who dat?" phrase emblazoned on them. "Sue me," he reportedly shot back to the NFL amid the obvious delight of his electorate. The backlash was so great that the NFL, accustomed to strong arm tactics in other cities, was put in the curious situation where they had to rethink their position. Before the beginning of the Pro Bowl weekend they clarified their claim. Only where the term "who dat?' is used with the obvious New Orleans Saints black and gold color scheme and their name would there be grounds for legal action by the Saints and the league, they contended. It still went down loyal Saints fans' throats like day old warm beer. Their outcry was unmistakably opposed to the league and to a lesser attempt at Tom Benson's Saints organization. Even the staid Times-Picayune decried the NFL's action in an editorial. It is curious that the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of New Orleans, Louisiana, the Saints and Scouting cannot be trademarked or copyrighted. It has existed as a symbol for centuries and the Saints are the only NFL organization that cannot lay claim to it as their exclusive symbol. The dust has settled on that hot topic now that the team members have journeyed to Miami and begun to work on their game plan for Sunday's game. Coach Sean Payton has been tight-lipped about what he plans on doing in Supebowl XLIV, but today is Media Day, the first major day of coverage by sportswriters and reporters from across the globe. Like ravenous piranha fish they will descend on the players and coaches and start the turnstiles of endless coverage that will pervade all media up to and including the kickoff. Local fans are starting and ending conversations with the "Who dat?" phrase, but the anxiety levels are definitely building. The two best teams in the NFL are getting ready for a shootout. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, would be the local favorite were he not playing against his dad's former team. The trash talk on the local radio talk shows have dealt with how to get to Manning and keep him off his game. Sunday afternoon well over one thousand men donned dresses, slipped on high heeled shoes, applied makeup and bandied boas as they marched in memory of local sportscaster Buddy "D" Diliberto, who had made a promise to his faithful that should the Saints ever get into the Superbowl, he would wear a dress. Sadly, he passed away prior to Hurricane Katrina's devastation and the horrible damage done to the Saints playing facility at the Louisiana Superdome. WWL radio sports reporter and former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert led the rally in a special black and gold sequined number designed by his daughter, who works in the fashion industry in New York City. I liken this period of time to the veritable calm before the storm or the period on the rollercoaster when it is making its slow and steady climb to the top just before all hell breaks loose as it plummets toward the ground. All I can advise to everyone concerned is hold on tight. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

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