NEW ORLEANS — James Carville, the noted political consultant and proud Louisianian, took a long draw on his coffee at a Garden District breakfast spot here recently before shaking his head and offering a wry smile. The question was, what would Carville say if Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, happened to ask him for a restaurant recommendation in advance of the Super Bowl on Feb. 3?
“Something with a back room?" Carville, a co-chairman of the Super Bowl host committee, finally said with a laugh. “Or room service."
Super Bowl week is typically a pleasant experience for the league’s commissioner, who is ostensibly an honored guest in the city where the game is held. This year, however, Goodell figures to find a reception more akin to what the New York Yankees might get if they held a reunion at Boston’s Fenway Park. Fans of the hometown Saints have been — and, in many cases, continue to be — livid at Goodell for the discipline he imposed on the team this season for the so-called bounty scandal.
As Kermit Ruffins, the popular New Orleans jazz musician, said, “There’s a lot of angry cats down here, and I’m thinking most folks don’t have a problem letting someone know how they feel."
Tell us how you really feel
Indeed, New Orleanians rarely seem to have trouble expressing anything. Public outrage has been evident for months since Goodell, among other punishments, suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the entire season after accusations of a teamwide system that offered Saints players financial rewards for injuring opponents. In the aftermath, visitors to Internet message boards bandied about such savory topics as what they would do to Goodell if they happened to run into him in a dark alley, while protests from city residents appeared on posters, banners and T-shirts. (“Free Sean Payton" and “Go to hell, Goodell" were among the most popular.)
That, on appeal, the punishment of the players supposedly involved in the bounty case was overturned in September seemed only to inflame the feeling among Saints supporters that they had been wronged. The team, which won the Super Bowl in 2010, finished 7-9 this season and missed the playoffs.
The most creative, or profane, expression of the city’s anger at Goodell may have come over the weekend, during the Krewe du Vieux, considered one of the most satirical parades of Mardi Gras. That is when thousands of spectators glimpsed a float featuring a giant papier-mache rendering of Goodell’s head being consumed by, in the words of Jenn Lilos, a float co-captain, “a giant, man-eating vagina that is getting its revenge."
Lilos added, by way of further explanation, “I think New Orleanians are very, very loyal." Her fellow float organizer Gunner Guidry agreed, and noted of Goodell, “This is just the wrong year for him to come down here."
At a recent luncheon to discuss preparations for the Super Bowl, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged residents to “mind your P’s and Q’s" when it came to the commissioner.
“Be gracious and wonderful hosts and show people the hospitality they deserve," he said. “This extends to Roger Goodell, too."
Not just an enemy
Goodell does have plenty of defenders, and his history with New Orleans has several high points. As a top assistant to the former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, he was largely responsible for keeping the Super Bowl in New Orleans after the 2001 season, when the date of the game was pushed back a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
If not for Goodell, league officials say, the game might have been moved to a different city because a convention of automobile dealers had booked the Superdome on the game’s new date; after intense negotiations, led by Goodell, the automobile dealers agreed to swap dates with the league.
Goodell, too, was instrumental in helping the Saints return to New Orleans, and remain there, after Hurricane Katrina, when ownership pondered moving the franchise. Carville, who lives in New Orleans and teaches occasionally at Tulane University, said those moments should not be forgotten.
“He’s been a friend to this city," Carville said. “And whatever we think, people need to remember that around here we are always gracious when we welcome someone into our home."
Of course, Carville added with a wink that he essentially confirmed that “I never intend to run for public office in Louisiana when I said on television the other day that I like the commissioner."
Which one is he?
Richard Campanella, a historical geographer based in New Orleans, said he generally divided New Orleans villains into three categories: those perceived to be corrupt or incompetent, like Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Katrina, or the former mayor C. Ray Nagin; those seen as critics or traitors, like the publishing executive Steven Newhouse, who recently reduced the city’s beloved newspaper to a three-days-a-week publishing schedule; and those seen as harsh reformers, like the Union general Benjamin F. Butler, who captured the city during the Civil War and was roundly hated, according to Campanella, despite later doing some significant good for city residents, particularly in the area of public health.
“There has long been the notion of an enemy of the city here, someone for everyone to shake their fist at," Campanella said. “I think what’s going on here is that this city has long been perceived to be deviant in some way, either culturally or physically. So if one is perceived to be deviant and under attack for that, then one is always going to be very protective."
Campanella laughed. “I would put Goodell in the third category, of harsh reformers, except that the only difference is that generally there isn’t such unanimity in terms of the dislike. This time, I think it’s pretty much everyone."
Goodell declined an interview request for this article, and a league spokesman declined to provide details about any security procedures the league would institute involving him in New Orleans. His schedule during Super Bowl week usually involves private corporate functions, community charity events and league-related matters, like his annual state of the NFL news conference. Most residents believe the city will show its displeasure in peaceful ways. Tory McPhail, the chef at Commander’s Palace, said he would gladly welcome Goodell if the commissioner chose to dine at his restaurant, “even though as a Saints fan I have my own personal feelings."
Other businesses have placed signs in their windows that have a picture of Goodell along with the words “Do Not Serve This Man." David Bergeron, who owns the popular Creole Creamery, said customers have often asked to be photographed by the sign since it was put up several months ago.
Next door, at Kyoto, the owner, Sara Molony, often has her servers wear “Free Sean Payton" T-shirts. “Hey, what do we think of Goodell?" she called out in the restaurant one day last week. When several sushi preparers responded by making an exaggerated spitting noise and giving a thumbs-down sign, she nodded happily.
“I hope he’s bringing some food tasters with him down here," she said. “Or his own sandwiches."