When the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, I was in the backyard of my childhood home in New Orleans. My family lived in the town of Kenner, less the tourist-friendly picture of the city and more a typical suburban neighborhood. I had traveled from New York just the day before to be with my family for this specific occasion, but the moment was proving to be too much for me. With the Saints holding a lead in the fourth quarter and the Colts on a drive to tie the game, I went outside and stood with my back to the window that looked into the living room and the TV. It was a familiar place; when it came to sports, the backyard had always been a haven for indulging my anxiety and discomfort. Out there, I couldn’t rely on the broadcast to relay what was happening, but the reaction from inside and the commotion of my neighbors would tell me what I needed to know. After a few minutes, I heard it: an exultant uproar from the living room. I ran back inside to celebrate.
My parents settled in New Orleans as the final step in their immigration to the United States. Their path first landed them in Brooklyn, where my sister was born, and then in Rhode Island, where my brother and I were born, before the whole family returned to Peru as part of my parents’ visa requirements. Settling in New Orleans when I was almost three, my parents set out to begin their medical careers, and instill a sense of home and stability. That transition was successful in some ways and less so in others; when I visited Peru, relatives heard my accent and labeled me “the American,” an identity that was harder to claim in the US as the son of immigrant parents.
As a sports fan, personal identity was less fraught. I was initiated into the misery of fandom during the 1998 Men’s World Cup. I cried as France beat Brazil 2-0, but tasted victory the following year when the United States Women’s Team won the 1999 World Cup in penalty kicks (5-4) over China. Once settled in New Orleans as a full-blown sports fan, I wasted no time becoming a diehard fan of the Saints and—after their move and name change—the Pelicans. If you live in New Orleans, differentiating between your identity as a resident and your identity as a Saints fan is difficult, and to some extent pointless. The city shuts down every game day, and the latest win or loss replaces the weather, or even complaining about the ever-worsening condition of New Orleans’ roads, as the de rigueur small talk.
All of my sports fandoms have been premised on place, history, and human connection more than by the specific sport in question. I didn’t become a fan of the Saints because I particularly cared about the NFL; I was exploring my identity in the context of my hometown. I was looking for attachment. After I graduated from college I became a fan of club soccer, a proud supporter of Arsenal FC. My sister had studied for her master’s in London, and when she moved back home the two of us would wake up early on Saturdays to watch the English Premiere League. I would set my alarm for 6:30 a.m. if I wanted to catch the first game. These hazy, bleary-eyed mornings perfectly fit my sense of what fandom was.
As other people marked time with changes in the weather, I oriented myself by the cycle of sports seasons. Summer was marked by the NBA finals and NBA draft, the MLB midseason and All Star game followed by the US Open in August; I knew it was fall when the NFL season started and excitement began to build for the World Series in October. The individual sport didn’t matter as much as the milestone event, the marker in time.
But no matter how much sports coverage I consumed, I avoided watching live broadcasts. They induced sheer anxiety; watching was visceral, unfettered agony. No matter who I was watching with or where we were, it made me feel like my sense of identity was on public display. For most of my life I felt like a fraud. I thought I was missing out on some essential experience as a fan. Over time I came to believe that the least interesting part of a sport was the game itself. Live sports are predicated on reaction; I wanted conversation. I prefer to engage with a game in its afterlife: the box score, the analysis, the significance of the outcome in the context of a season.
I always dreamed of escaping the suffocating conservatism of the South that I’d grown up with. The Northeast, with its cold winters and liberal politics, represented change and liberation; it seemed like the proper place to start a career in writing and journalism. There was legitimacy there, I thought. When I moved to New York for college, I learned about the supposed divide between “local” and “national” journalism. In New Orleans my primary connection to reporting and journalism had been The Times-Picayune. In New York, I began to call it my “local” paper, reaching for a retronym to differentiate it from larger, “national” outlets.
The Times-Picayune, and its staff, had contextualized my relationship to New Orleans, from its coverage of the Saints’ first playoff victory over the Rams in 2000, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to the city’s reaction to Barack Obama’s presidential election in 2008. For its reporting in the aftermath of Katrina, the paper garnered national attention, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting and the Public Service Prize in 2006. But it didn’t feel local to me until I left town. Having left New Orleans, I came to see that there was something local about every paper, even so called “national” ones. I was proud of how mine cared about the community that raised me.
Once I was outside New Orleans, my Saints fandom became more important to me, too. What had been conformity back home was distinctive in New York, and I felt a civic duty to represent the team. Since there wasn’t a historic rivalry between the Saints and teams in the tri-state area, football fans were free to see my allegiance as quirky. Still, when I went to see the Saints play the Giants at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, I was booed and heckled as the Saints lost in a blowout in the rain.
Despite (or perhaps because of) that pain, loyalty to the Saints felt easier and more important to sustain than a connection to The Times-Picayune. It was also because my hometown’s once-lauded paper had become largely unrecognizable. In 2012, The Times-Picayune began publishing only on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, making New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily print newspaper (an ignoble distinction now held by Pittsburgh). In 2014 it announced plans to close the Louisiana printing branch and move production to Alabama; the January 17, 2016 edition was the last one printed in-state. When Louisiana natives Dathel and John Georges bought the paper in 2019—attempting to unify it with The Advocate and the digital outlet nola.com under a single brand—they laid off the entire staff; only a select few were rehired.
As a sports fan, I know that teams are defined by turnover and change. One of my favorite Saints was Marques Colston, who seemed to embody the spirit of the team, then was released after the 2015 season. In its relatively short history, I’ve seen both Chris Paul and Anthony Davis traded from the Pelicans. Teams cut or trade players who are no longer useful; players leave a franchise when a better career opportunity presents itself. These moves are so ordinary that lamenting them seems pointless. The players and staff are impermanent. Loyalty always reverts to the team, which is much of the power of fandom.
As we have seen all too clearly, media has a harder time instilling the same kind of loyalty. I care about The Times-Picayune because it cares about the city I grew up in, the city where my family lives, but that allegiance is not an end in itself. In the face of so much change, my support for a local institution and its history is a comfort, tethering me to my own past. I grieve its decline accordingly.
As much as new ownership might try to shape a team or sports organization, it cannot define the community built around it. Watching the Saints and Pelicans play was a way to bond with my family and cement a connection with New Orleans, linking me intimately with those closest to me as well as complete strangers.
After the Saints won the Super Bowl, my sister and I headed downtown with a crowd of fellow fans, all of us united in pure joy. But we don’t always win, and losing never gets easier. I still can’t watch live games. I tell myself that it is easier with distance; if I’m not physically present then I won’t be emotionally, either. I was living in New York during the 2018 NFL playoffs, wandering around Brooklyn on a freezing night as the Saints took on the Vikings in the divisional round.
They lost on the last play of the game. I felt disconnected from my body, my legs and arms numb from the cold. I needed the results of the game to be different. To be connected to anything—a team, a newspaper, a family, an ambition—is to be vulnerable. Deciding to engage with that connection means relinquishing control, putting trust in something else. But sometimes I have to look away.