On Monday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu took the first ceremonial ride on the new Loyola Avenue streetcar before rushing down to the not-new-but-newly refurbished Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Landrieu was set to address members of the national and international press about Super Bowl XLVII, which was already beginning to make itself known in terms of traffic in the CBD and French Quarter.
“This is bigger than Super Bowl. This is about the resurrection of a city,” Landrieu told the press.
While Landrieu was speaking, the Wild West-style social media site Reddit was hosting an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) online chat with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — Public Enemy No. 1 for many in the Black and Gold Nation. The chat was quickly crashed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans expressing salty opinions about the commish. (Also in on the bashing: outspoken Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.)
And while all this was happening, a photo was inciting outrage in New Orleans’ social media rounds — a picture of the Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square hung with a giant logo for the CBS daytime yap show The Talk. (After calls to Landrieu’s office and to CBS, the sign was removed and not replaced.)
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl was still six days away …
The Talk, which had caused French Quarter fury on Monday, regrouped on Tuesday with an appearance by WWL-TV anchor Angela Hill, who brought the hosts gifts that probably puzzled a national audience (a Muses shoe, a Zulu coconut, king cake earrings).
It was only one of many shows during the week filmed at “CBS Super Bowl Park at Jackson Square,” which had been transformed into a giant outdoor broadcast studio with shows ranging from CBS sports broadcasts to The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson and Face the Nation With Bob Schieffer. The network’s nightly news was scheduled to be broadcast from the square Friday and Saturday as well.
Promises that Jackson Square would remain open to the public proved technically true; the quadrant at Chartres and St. Ann streets was the one place people didn’t need to pass through CBS’ Checkpoint Charlies. It was one of the few concessions to the French Quarter’s anti-Super Bowl takeover forces, which had scored a victory Monday when U.S. District Court Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt put his signature to a consent judgment settling a First Amendment dispute between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana, ending a strict ban on non-NFL-sanctioned signs, banners and flags in the so-called Super Bowl “Clean Zone.”
Behind all the telewizardry and the temporary stages, TV magicians had dramatically spotlit St. Louis Cathedral and the Louisiana State Museums, making them look something like Cinderella’s castle. At ground level, police in new neon-yellow vests milled about. The square’s usual component of artists was dramatically reduced, and there were only a few fortune tellers and buskers in evidence, patiently waiting for attention and tips from random Super Bowl tourists, most of whom seemed more concerned with iPhones, go-cups and fat cigars.
Across the street at Washington Artillery Park, where an icy wind was coming off the Mississippi River, snapping flags and shaking a fake plastic “gaslamp,” WWL-TV personalities Sheba Turk and Tamica Lee Smith shivered in scanty dresses, preparing for their live show New Orleans Tonight. Nearby, a small cluster of 610 Stompers similarly ignored the weather, clad in their traditional red satin jackets, terry-cloth headbands and moose-knuckle-revealing shorts. Passing tourists gave them puzzled looks and a wide berth.
Private high-roller events with Justin Timberlake, Pitbull and Stevie Wonder aside, the hot tickets in town were the completely unpublicized parties — a Monday night bash at James Carville and Mary Matalin’s Uptown house; Wednesday at the Windsor Court with Landrieu, Goodell, former commish Paul Tagliabue, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other VIPs; and Thursday night’s NFL owners’ party in a massive tent in New Orleans City Park. But visiting press were treated to a fete of their own.
On Tuesday, Jay Cicero, head of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, made it official: The city would be chasing the chance to hold the 2018 Super Bowl back in New Orleans. That night, the Super Bowl host committee fired the first volley in that campaign with a media party/bacchanal at Mardi Gras World that was half Orpheuscapade, half Hollywood premiere.
The Roots of Music marching band escorted print and TV reporters from around the world — many of whom admitted they were still hung over from the night before — into Kern Studios’ vast warehouse, where dozens of volunteers were waiting to bedeck them with beads bearing the host committee logo.
The walls were lined with Kern’s most colorful floats, all blinking and flashing at maximum gaudy brightness, while female aerialists dangled from the ceiling. Forty-seven food booths were set up along the party’s perimeter — from Borgne and Root to Parkway Bakery and Acme Oyster House — while Louisiana musicians played on six different stages (Tab Benoit and Amanda Shaw’s duet on “Hot Tamale Baby” had dozens of cameraphones out).
There was a chef demonstration by Tenney Flynn of GW Fins. Members of the New Orleans tech community showed off their wares in a room throbbing with local bounce. Bartenders poured top-shelf liquor under structures decorated with giant glass skulls advertising Dan Aykroyd’s celebrity-soaked vodka (Aykroyd himself, in AARP Blues Brother mode, jumped on stage to accompany Big Sam’s Funky Nation). If you didn’t want to belly up to the enormous raw bar with half a dozen poker-faced shuckers laying out Louisiana oysters, there was always the premium cigar lounge overlooking the Mississippi River, or a late-night cruise on the Creole Queen.
And then there was politico-celebrity spotting: Landrieu hustled through the crowd, shaking hands but making no speeches. City Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Kristin Gisleson Palmer were there, as were Jefferson Parish President John Young and host committee VIPs Carville and Matalin (who had just been let go from CNN that morning). At one point on the dock, while Tryptophunk wailed and the Saintsations were posing for photographs with their arms around sweaty, rumpled press guys, Carville was deep in conversation with River Birch trash magnate Fred Heebe.
The out-of-town press was suitably stunned; the event was Super Bowl and Mardi Gras combined, fit for a Kingfish Caligula.
The Super Bowl Committee estimated more than 5,000 reporters arrived in New Orleans to cover Super Bowl XLVII. Massive coach buses unloaded them all, seemingly, into the Superdome for Media Day on Tuesday, a day which eventually blurred together into a surreal melange (in one case, literally surreal; a local reporter who remained anonymous dropped acid before covering Media Day and wrote about it for Vice magazine).
Fans filled the lower bowl sideline to watch the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens host Q&A sessions with reporters on the Astroturf. Attendees could listen in to every interview stage using free ear-clip radios.
Media Day typically serves as a grande bouffe of story angles — player backgrounds and personal stories, what’s on their minds before the game, perhaps their relationship to the host city, or entire stories built around a minute’s worth of quotes from a star player. Players sat back for an hour to wax philosophic on football, reflect on the season, answer boring questions or repeat answers to repeated questions, and get a little loose in a pre-game, stress-free interview setting — and some walk around and goof on- and off-camera with the media.
Comedian and CBS correspondent Mo Rocca made 49ers tight end Vernon Davis look at fabric swatches and Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones recite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Ravens safety Ed Reed, who played for Destrehan High School, and Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones, who graduated from Marion Abramson High School, made Media Day a sort of homecoming. Reporters also got a glimpse of the big game’s snack bar menu, including chicken sauce piquante ($12) and a $25 sandwich made not of gold ingots, but prime rib — which made the Dome’s usual exorbitant tariff on a cup of light beer seem reasonable.
But last week’s big story lead was Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is never far from intriguing headlines, on whether he used “deer antler spray” (or an ingredient used in it) to recover from an injury. Meanwhile, Ravens center Matt Birk confirmed his much-publicized stand against gay marriage: “I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman,” and attributed his views to his Catholic background. (Conversely, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo planned to use the Super Bowl to boost his pro-gay marriage and anti-bullying views to the public.) But it was 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver who made new anti-gay remarks — that’s the San Francisco 49ers — and the team returned with an apology it attributed to Culliver: “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel.”
Eloquent, if incomprehensible.
Less than 24 hours later, Culliver took to Twitter to add women to the list of his problems: “Boy I wake up to a mean txt females in general just be — well let me just say they be on there PERIOD!!”
The best soundbite of the week was delivered by former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason, whose struggle with ALS has been well-documented since he was diagnosed with the disease in 2010. At a press conference to announce his new Team Gleason House for Innovative Living, a residential facility for ALS patients, Gleason — whose neuromuscular system has degenerated to the point where he now speaks mostly with the aid of a computer — was asked by a reporter what was most “humbling” about having ALS.
“What is most humbling, you ask?” Gleason replied. “To be honest: Having someone else wash my balls.”
Smiling, he added, “Anything else?”
During a Wednesday afternoon press conference at the Convention Center, NFL vice president and chief security officer Jeffrey Miller — flanked by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Ronal Serpas and others — told the press “This week, there is no safer place to be than the city of New Orleans.” (It’s likely he referred to terrorist activity. As far as safety went, the city had a murder a day Monday through Thursday last week, though none of the victims were Super Bowl visitors.)
In another wing of the Convention Center, the talk was more about safeties than safety. Doors opened on the NFL Experience, a 850,000-square-foot heavily corporate-endorsed-and-branded football Disney World, a sort of pop-up theme park for Pop Warner kids and giddy grown-up football nerds.
Escorted by Louisiana State Police, former Saint Deuce McCallister and his gloved hands carried the Vince Lombardi Trophy down a red carpet to its glass-cased throne under a massive portrait of itself. St. Augustine High School’s Marching 100 accompanied Deuce, making a grand entrance that thrilled Who Dats and confused anyone not wearing black and gold.
Inside the Experience, visitors gawked at glass-encased Super Bowl rings and football paraphernalia, played on kid- and adult-sized playgrounds, attempted to kick field goals, and ate Tostitos Scoops (slogan: “We Kneaux How to Party!”) and endless peanut M&Ms from oil-drum-size candy barrels.
And then there was the most widely attended press conference of the week: the appearance of pop star Beyonce, who would provide halftime entertainment during the game. (The pre-game national anthem would be left to Alicia Keys, while Jennifer Hudson and 26 students from the Sandy Hook Elementary Choir of Newtown, Conn. would be responsible for “America the Beautiful.”)
Beyonce stepped onstage in a skintight cream-colored mini dress as an American flag graphic waved on the stage-sized screen behind her. Flashbulbs and cameraphones strobed.
“Would you guys mind standing?”
She launched into a flawless, a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” ending with, “Any questions?” (Within minutes, the celebrity website TMZ had footage of the performance with the headline “BEYONCE Sings National Anthem LIVE SUCK IT, HATERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!”)
Her vocals vaporized any questions about her performance at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, during which she performed the national anthem with a pre-recorded vocal track. Her first question of the day, though, was about that performance (the last was about the color of her toothbrush).
“I am a perfectionist,” Beyonce said. “I practice until my feet bleed.” It’s not that she couldn’t perform to her standard at the inauguration, she just didn’t want to risk it, having not rehearsed with the band and fearing weather or other delays. “It was about the president, and the inauguration, and I wanted to make him and my country proud, so I decided to sing along to my pre-recorded track — which is very common in the music industry, and I’m very proud of my performance.”
Beyonce also clarified that she would “absolutely be singing live” at the Super Bowl. “This is what I was born to do,” she said. She also didn’t dispel rumors of a Destiny’s Child reunion. Her former group just released Love Songs, along with a new single, “Nuclear.” When asked whether bandmates Kelly Rowland or Michelle Williams (or Beyonce’s husband Jay-Z) would make an appearance, Beyonce said, “I don’t know” with a big grin.
“When I was driving up and saw the Superdome I got chills,” Beyonce told reporters. “My family is from New Iberia, so it really makes me emotional to have a halftime performance — I think of all my heroes. ... When I got into the Superdome, I took my shoes off and planted my feet into the ground, and I just ran.”
And for those who doubted her, Beyonce had five words: “I love haters. No hate.”
Goodell came to New Orleans well aware of the “Go to Hell Goodell” and “Do Not Serve This Man” signs around town. Then there was the Krewe du Vieux float picturing Goodell being eaten by a giant vagina — the guy had a rough couple of weeks, though he was feted at more than one private function. A Twitter account had even been set up, urging locals to “photobomb” the commissioner — no, not with Molotov cocktails and cameras, but by popping up behind him during public events and making their displeasure known via T-shirts and gestures.
On Friday, though, Goodell had nothing but kind things to say about the city, but also about Saints fans.
“I couldn’t feel more welcome here. ... I had a float in a Mardi Gras parade,” he joked. “I’m serious — people here have been incredible. I understand a fan’s loyalty is to the team. They had no part in this. They were completely innocent in this. I appreciate the passion. I saw it for myself when we were down here for Katrina. It’s clear that’s what they’re all about.”
But Goodell stood his ground on the Bountygate decisions.
“There is no question there was a bounty program in place for three years,” he said. “That’s bad for the players, the game, and I think the message is incredibly clear, and I don’t believe bounties are going to be part of football moving forward.”
Asked whether he had any regrets about the decision and penalties, Goodell said he regrets that the entire league isn’t “recognizing that this is a collective responsibility” to ensure bounties are out of the game.
“We all share this responsibility, and that’s what I regret, that I wasn’t able to make that point clearly enough with the union and others,” he told assembled sports reporters. “But that is something that we’re going to be incredibly relentless on.”
There was no word as to the color of his toothbrush.