What Winning and Losing Really Means

If ever there was an image to depict the 49 years of failure by the Minnesota Vikings, this is it. Will the 50th season be any different?

I was living in Portland, Ore. when the New Orleans Saints defeated my Minnesota Vikings in last year’s NFC Championship. Famously, the Vikings dominated the Saints for four quarters, but committed turnover after turnover, including a costly interception by quarterback Brett Favre just as the team was positioned for a game-winning field goal attempt in overtime:

I don’t want to relive it, but many Vikings fans will tonight when The Purple seek revenge against the Saints at the Superdome.

Back to living in Portland. I was as traumatized as most, but lucky for having lived and worked in a city that was largely apathetic to the NFL. If I’d lived in Minnesota, I doubt I would’ve gone to work. Misery loves company and all, but we fans of Minnesota pro sports have played that card too often. I would’ve spent the week in bed.

Last night, my girlfriend and I attended a Minnesota Twins game. (I went because the company I worked for was offered a spot in a suite. Beth went because upper deck tickets were just $4.) I got into a conversation with two women in their 30s who remember (fondly) the Minnesota Twins winning the 1991 World Series. One was at Game 7 while the other missed school to attend the World Series parade. That’s all I needed to hear, because it made me realize that’s all we Vikings fans really want: A celebration to break up the monotony. Something positive for a change. We want a parade.

As a sports fan, I’ve hedged my emotional investments after countless heartbreaks. You might argue it’s me getting older, wiser, more sensible, and realizing pro sports are merely entertainment. I don’t disagree.

However, I believe pro sports also bring about civic pride. There’s a reason we wear the team gear outside of season, kind of like a proclamation — This is where I’m from. This is what I’m about. A city like Minneapolis has a billion things to be proud of, but we can’t brag about our lakes, the arts scene and our best bicycling city title. Nothing could make us stick out our chests like a Super Bowl win. It’s not about pride in our town, but pride in our city. It just so happens pro sports are the best measuring stick.

I’ve argued, time and time again, sports matter because they don’t matter. We live at a time where everything matters — the economy, the housing market, the BP oil spill, the wars, etc. (And I don’t mean to underplay other issues using an et cetera, but that list could go on for days.) All the world’s seriousness stops outside of the stadium, never crosses the sidelines and can’t stop us from ejecting off our coaches when our favorite team scores a touchdown or hits a home run. That’s the beauty of it. The best part about pro sports is our team can lose and it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

The Vikings are five-point underdogs tonight. It’s possible the Saints throttle the Vikings and we’re left with the cold reminder brilliant seasons like last year’s are rare. It’s also possible they’ll go down to New Orleans and level revenge and have the Greater Twin Cities teeming with hope come Friday morning.

Either way, it’s better to be here, in Minneapolis, no matter suffering or celebrating. Although celebrating would be nice for a change.

New Orleans Overload

Fans embrace players like New Orleans Saints running back Mike Bell, but how big of a role can players like Bell play in helping rebuild the city?

What if the New Orleans Saints had lost Super Bowl XLIV?

Would Mayor-elect  Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu call off efforts to rebuild the most affected areas of the city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina?

Would Governor Bobby Jindal turn his focus to other state projects instead of rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward?

Would America just forget about New Orleans?

No, no, and no. And that’s what I find so irritating about the assumptions surrounding the Saints winning last night’s Super Bowl 31-17 over the Indianapolis Colts. With all the hyperbole spewed at us by CBS yesterday, you would think the Super Bowl was make-or-break for the future of New Orleans, and had the Saints lost the Super Bowl, the city rocked by Hurricane Katrina would somehow slip from our consciousness.

I do not dispute the Saints have been important to New Orleans. What annoys me, though, is how “important” has been used to say “integral to the function and survival of the city.” I’ll agree the Saints have given the city an identity, but so has Bourbon Street, blues and Mardi Gras. There’s been this notion all season that New Orleans is the only city that relies on its most beloved professional sports franchise to boost morale.

As a former Minnesotan, I can tell you the people of Minneapolis take just as much pride in the Vikings, Twins and Wild — Timberwolves, not so much — as New Orleans does the Saints. Still, that’s not a picture sports journalists or pundits would paint had any of those teams made a title game. It’s not sexy enough. What natural disaster did Minneapolis endure? Blizzards don’t count.

The bigger issue is this: CBS and sports journalists everywhere mistook context for reason to decide history in the moment. Stories like this team from this city winning this Super Bowl certainly matter now, but time will tell how big of an impact the win really has. The problem with defining this Super Bowl win as somehow crucial or pivotal in the rebuilding of New Orleans is obvious – we don’t know how much this matters. For now, it’s a great reason to celebrate. (See Bourbon Street for evidence.)

What has yet to take place and will ultimately decide how much this win “mattered” is the massive, tangible change that could be spurned by the Saints bringing New Orleans back into the public’s awareness. This Super Bowl win may result in nothing more than a nice trophy, some championship rings and fond memories. And you know what? That’s OK. That’s all you can expect from pro sports. But something even bigger has to take place in New Orleans for this Super Bowl to live up to its own hype.

That’s not fair to the Saints, New Orleans or even fans.

That’s what happens when the media tries to make something bigger than it really is. This was a moral victory for a city in desperate need of a win.

The reality is it may never be anything more than a moral victory, and that should be enough.