Why Sports Are Important

(and why you are, too)

By Damian Foley
Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications

This month’s lead story, about New Orleans Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis ’79 and the role his team played in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, is a deeply personal one for me.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast, I was a student at Louisiana State University. Two makeshift hospitals were set up on the LSU campus—in the basketball arena and the indoor track and field building—and I volunteered in them for several weeks, helping doctors, nurses, and patients alike. That gave me, a kid from a country known mainly for rugby, Hobbits, and sheep, an up close and personal look at just how deeply ingrained in society football is in America.

Let me explain what I mean—but get comfortable, as this might take a while.

A steady stream of ambulances and medical helicopters brought evacuees to the LSU campus around the clock, and I unloaded them and guided the sick and injured through triage to make sure they saw the correct medical personnel. I saw evacuees die right in front of me; those who passed away were taken downstairs to the basketball and volleyball team’s practice gym, which was being used as a makeshift morgue because it could be kept cool. It was an incredibly stressful time, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for the patients I met, many of whom had left New Orleans with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Only, their clothes were not exactly the only things they left with.

Many evacuees made sure to grab one more thing as they were leaving their flooded homes and boarding ambulances or helicopters: their football tickets. They no longer had livable homes, and some were seriously injured, but they didn’t want to miss a chance to see the LSU Tigers or New Orleans Saints play.

LSU’s home opener was delayed that season, as the campus was largely closed off to keep the streets open for medical personnel. To say the evacuees were unhappy would be a huge understatement—their lives had been destroyed and they wanted something to feel good about, and to them, “feeling good” meant getting together with fellow fans to watch a game and take their minds off their troubles for three hours.

The eventual home opener, then, was a weight lifted off everybody’s shoulders. Patients who had lost their homes and possessions, volunteers who had been sleeping on thin mattresses for several weeks, and doctors and nurses who had been making do with a dwindling amount of donated supplies either joined the 90,000 fans inside Tiger Stadium or huddled around televisions in the temporary hospital to watch the game.

It was a celebration, and it brought the community together to remind people that while Mother Nature can pack a punch, she can’t defeat the human spirit.

Almost one year to the day after that game, the Saints played their first home game in 638 days. The team played its entire 2015 schedule on the road after New Orleans flooded, while the damaged Superdome, with its roof partially torn off during Hurricane Katrina, was used as a shelter.

By the time the game rolled around, not much had changed in the Crescent City. Dark waterlines on the structures still standing showed clearly how high the floodwaters had risen. The spray-painted signs on buildings—markers left behind by search and rescue teams looking for survivors and victims—were still clearly visible. Both would take several years to fade. Large portions of New Orleans were still abandoned, with no streetlights, let alone gas stations or schools. The people who had moved back were rebuilding houses as well as lives, and blue tarpaulin “FEMA roofs” covered many of the structures still standing.

The city had taken an almighty beating, and needed something to kick start a recovery.

Not surprisingly, then, the Saints returned to an almighty party. The Goo Goo Dolls performed outside the Superdome before the game, while inside the stadium, U2 and Green Day joined local artists Trombone Shorty and Rebirth Brass Band to perform emotional covers of “The House of the Rising Sun” and “The Saints are Coming,” the latter with dark verses about death and despair punctuated by the defiant chorus, “The saints are coming.” The team defeated the archrival Atlanta Falcons comfortably in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 70,000.

For people who weren’t in the Gulf Coast region during Hurricane Katrina, and weren’t around to witness the rebirth, it is hard to fully explain just how much that Monday Night Football game meant to New Orleans. It was a unifying event that brought the community together for a celebration that said “We’re going to be okay.” The city was still broken, but to the fans in New Orleans, having the Saints back was a rallying point, something to finally be proud of again.

Often trivialized as “just a game,” football played a real, tangible role in lifting the morale of an entire city and gave its residents a welcome jolt of energy. There are times that sports seem to take on too important a role in society, causing people to lose perspective—and there are a number of famous athletes who will never be described as good role models—but in many instances sports can bridge cultural divides, unite people, and yes, heal broken communities.

That said, you don’t need to be the face of a rebuilding city to be make a difference. Ducks pride themselves on their generosity and their willingness to help others, and at the UO we are lucky to have an abundance of outstanding alumni, student, faculty, and staff role models working to change the world for the better. Some of those role models just happen to be better known than others, due to their exploits on the playing fields.

Current UO quarterback Marcus Mariota ’14—who has already completed the requirements for his general science degree, including taking his biology theories exam while working as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy last year—helps at the Boys and Girls Club, and the student-athlete who wants a career in physical therapy is also known to provide food and water for members of Eugene’s homeless community.

Former UO two-sport athlete AK Ikwuakor ’07, profiled in this month’s news, is using the life skills he learned while running track and playing football for the Ducks to make a difference in an impoverished area of the Philippines. His generosity is helping underprivileged children achieve their dreams (and they’re learning the ins and outs of route running in the process.)

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, recently completed by the UO’s head football coach Mark Helfrich and admissions director Jim Rawlins, was started by a former Boston College baseball player who now suffers from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). The challenge, which quickly went viral thanks to celebrity participants and its popularity on social media, has brought the degenerative condition into the spotlight and has had real results: The ALS Association received $31.5 million in donations between July 29 and August 20—compared to $1.9 million during the same period last year—thanks in large part to more than 630,000 new donors like Rawlins and Helfrich.

The beauty of role models such as Mariota, Ikwuakor, Helfrich, and Rawlins is that you don’t need to be able to throw a spiral, sprint 400 meters, call plays, or help the UO recruit the best and brightest students to be like them. You may never inspire an entire city, or, like Loomis, build the sports team that does, but you can still change lives. All you need is a willingness to do whatever you can, no matter how small a gesture, to make the world a better place.

That’s what it means to be a Duck.