When New Orleans Saints football coach Sean Payton held a press conference Wednesday to announce, after weeks of public speculation otherwise, that he would remain with the team next season, he also did something extraordinary: In a heartfelt way, he bolstered a sense of community.
It was a completely apolitical message, but a message conservatives would do well to remember and embrace.
When Payton finished a somewhat rambling, hour-plus session, cynical reporters and fans on Twitter all seemed to agree it had been no ordinary example of NFL-speak. Payton gave little analysis of what needs to improve next year, no promises that “we’re just one or two pieces away,” and not even the usual cliché about having “the best fans in the country.” Instead, almost entirely unbidden, in tones approaching wistfulness (but never maudlin or treacly), Payton “gushe[d]” about New Orleans (as described by the Louisiana Advocate newspapers), sent a “love letter” to the city itself (to quote the Times-Picayune), and said he “would struggle not living here” (i.e., if he were asked to live somewhere else).
This wasn’t chamber-of-commerce pabulum; it was palpably raw, unvarnished, “refreshing, fascinating” (the Times-Picayune again), and a bit humorous.
“There’s something about this city,” Payton said. “There was a lot back then that was uniquely different because of post-Katrina. But there is something unique and different. I can’t put my finger on it. I mean, I drive through a pothole every day like you guys do, and get upset. When the water is down in a certain parish, I have to come here to shower, just like everyone else might have to go somewhere else. And yet it grows on you, and it is home.”
Saints coach Sean Payton professes his love for the city of New Orleans at a press conference as the team’s ownership looks on. | Photo: AP
New Orleans, crime rate aside, has indeed made a remarkable comeback in the 10 years since the hurricane, with its economy strong and even its residential neighborhoods buzzing with an upbeat energy. The reasons for its comeback are myriad, including (obviously) its famous cultural jambalaya of food, music, literature, and what author Walker Percy once described to me as its “odd admixture of foreignness and Deep South-ness.” But there also can be no doubt, whatsoever, that in keeping the people of New Orleans together in constructive common cause, their Saints played an outsize, rallying role — perhaps, indeed likely, a role without which the entire recovery effort might have splintered into warring factions.
This is no encomium to sports in general or the NFL in particular: Other cities find numerous other reasons to pull together, to build and express civic pride, to create a sense — again, to stress the word in its fullest and best sense — of a real “community.”
But in all the post-storm grieving, the long-woebegone but always-beloved Saints sometimes seemed to offer the only glimmer of hope. Ask any native Louisianan what they did, early in the first post-Katrina game back in the Superdome when role-player Steve Gleason blocked the first punt of the rival Atlanta Falcons, and almost every one — man or woman — will say they literally cried with joy. Literally. Some will say not “cried” but “wept.” It was profoundly cathartic.
It was the bond formed then, with Payton as the new coach — the bond he described Wednesday as resulting from having “built something, and created something, and in the beginning it was about a lot more than football” — that now is keeping Payton from the usual NFL coaching wanderlust.
But — to move away from the Saints, from football, and from New Orleans — the broader lesson here is that community matters. In Charleston, S.C. they take pride in their Spoleto Festival. Saratoga Springs revels in its Performing Arts Center; Savannah, in its historic gardens. And sometimes a special leader (yes, the Ronald Reagan example again) can make very large majorities feel very much like a national community united by a hopeful vision.
Often, though, conservatives — even those who talk about the importance of culture — get so wrapped up in talking about economic growth, or strength, or profits, or individual rights or cutting spending, that they forget not just the language but sometimes also the substance of community. Conservatism can stress individualism while still celebrating the richness of some communitarian values.
Back in the 1990s, conservative former-Education Secretary William Bennett and old-fashioned patriotic liberal U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) spearheaded several projects emphasizing the importance of stable communities rooted in common cultural touchstones. One report, for example, highlighted the importance of “sacred places” as “vibrant and productive centers of community service that benefit the public at large.”
At Northwestern University’s “Asset-Based Community Development Institute,” liberal professor emeritus John McKnight for decades has preached the importance of mobilizing voluntary associations to improve at-risk neighborhoods. Think “community organizer” minus the Alinskyite radicalism and underhanded power plays, with a large dose of a Jack Kemp-like “empowerment” approach.
Sounding as conservative as a former ACLU state director can, McKnight says that poverty can’t be ended merely by cataloguing a neighborhood’s (or city’s) deficiencies and showering it with more resources as those deficiencies grow greater. That approach provides the perverse incentive to maintain the existence of the deficiencies specifically in order to attract more aid.
Instead, McKnight advocates taking an inventory of a community’s assets and rewarding the development thereof by “mobilizing these residents’ productive capabilities for implementing their own ideas.”
By now, we seem to be pretty far afield from a football coach’s press conference. Yet the themes and the spirit are similar. The idea is to grab hold of something in common, something to hope for, something that a broad array of people can agree on, rally around, and build upon, all through their own voluntary choices.
As Payton said, it’s “about a lot more than football.” Even in the midst of conservatives’ rightful stress on individualism rightly understood, we must always remember the very human yearning to find something to which we can belong. If that happens, then pretty soon, as Payton said, “it grows on you, and it is home.”
Quin Hillyer is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. He is a 40-year veteran of conservative journalism and activism, now living in Mobile, Alabama. You can follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.