Special to Page 2
I flew to Baton Rouge on Wednesday with anger in my heart because of what happened in New Orleans. I was angry that my country could not respond adequately to the horror in those streets when water became the enemy, that thousands of Americans were stranded in the Superdome and at the Convention Center, that almost all were poor and African-American.
It is open to debate whether we failed to move quickly enough to rescue those people -- possibly at the expense of thousands of lives -- because those stranded did not look like most of our government and corporate leaders. I do believe that if 10,000 white people had been stranded, we would have mobilized in a heartbeat. If I were African-American, I would have no doubt.
I heard so many people talking about the looters and the shooters, as if to shift the blame for the disaster to the African-Americans still there. Yes, New Orleans has historically had a high crime rate, and there were surely vicious criminals on the streets acting even more immorally than normal. But most of the looters were desperate men and women looking to get food and drink for their children. I saw the police stop an elderly man who had "looted" Depends because he was embarrassed by his incontinence.
Once forces were mobilized, the government was an efficient machine, and those people were evacuated within days. Food, drink, clothes and all kinds of essentials arrived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Donations poured in from across America and around the world.
I began to wonder how the rebuilding of such a devastated area could proceed. Most of all, I wondered how the anger, sadness and great sense of loss could be overcome, how the racial gap in America could be healed.
I have been working in the world of sport for more than three decades, and have seen athletes work to transform society, to help it heal. We saw this most recently with the Yankees in the 2001 World Series after Sept. 11. In the case of New Orleans, I immediately thought of the New Orleans Saints and Hornets.
Four days after the storm hit, I received an e-mail from Casey Knoettgen, one of my former graduate students, who works for the Saints:
"For the last couple of days I have understandably been extremely anxious, nervous, concerned about what is happening to my home the city of New Orleans, all the people that are suffering, still trying to survive and what is happening to the human spirit of this city.
"I cannot describe to you the feeling of what it's like to send a text message to these people that reads 'Are you still alive?' and then be able to do nothing but wait, hoping to hear from someone.
"As social order deteriorates in New Orleans, the nights become a terrifying time of waiting, hoping your loved ones live through the night, and that when the sun comes up there will be news of relief and forward progress, instead of more disaster.
"Speaking of hope and forward progress you opened my eyes to the power that sports have to influence people and society into positive courses of action for change. In those two years I spent with you at UCF I grew an understanding of how people who are in a leadership position have the responsibility to do something for the betterment of society.