Update (Oct. 21, 2010): An article in today’s Times Picayune reinforces this post’s theory of the dangerousness of Saints fanatics after a loss: Three Saints fans were so enraged over losing to the Dallas Cowboys last season that they drug a calf from a petting zoo and beat it to death. The men currently face animal cruelty charges.

A dark and foreboding storm swirls violently on the horizon. It threatens not the levees of New Orleans, the delicate ecology of the Gulf Coast nor the various industries upon which Louisiana’s economy depends. But after five years of agonizing and fitful rebuilding of a destroyed, abandoned and demoralized city, one scenario could potentially wreak such violent and terrible havoc on the collective psyche of New Orleans that a doomsday, category-five hurricane that finishes what Katrina started might be preferred: a series of humiliating losses by the New Orleans Saints.

(Okay, fine. A Saints loss is better than a hurricane, but the possibility of either one fills me with dread.)

People here say the Saints winning the Super Bowl did more for racial reconciliation in New Orleans than anything since Civil Rights. White and black, rich and poor—we’re all on the same team come game time. There’s also the distinct sense that the rise of the world-champion team corresponded with the rebirth of the city post-Katrina: After 30 years of being losers, the team’s owner nearly moved the Saints to San Antonio when the Superdome became a refugee camp; he acceded to popular outcry and returned the team to New Orleans for the 2006 season, which also marked the New Orleans debut of quarterback Drew Brees, whose rivals for most-loved individual in the region pale beneath his charms and well-toned throwing arm. Brees and the Saints’ rise to heroship paralleled the city’s renewal, and their Super Bowl victory was universally understood as distinct and unquestionable proof that New Orleans had accomplished the unimaginable, and pulled itself up from a watery grave, finally, to its feet. The Christ-ressurection innuendoes run thick, especially in a city of Catholics cheering for a team called the Saints.

Grown men wept with joy and embraced in the streets when the Saints won. Afterward, crime dropped low and spirits ran high. The long off-season felt like afterglow. The Who Dat nation reigned supreme, and as the new season approached Saints fans remained boastful, enthused and optimistic. But the foundation upon which this newfound self-confidence was built is as fickle as the swamp upon which the city sits, and which causes New Orleans’ streets to bulge and crack, the door and window frames of its homes to shift and stand askew. So much of New Orleans’ happiness depends on Saints victories, with little to undergird citywide emotional well-being in the event of heartbreaking defeat.

But it’s not only the potential of severe and widespread unhappiness and depression that worries me. People in New Orleans get crazy. This is a violent town, where anger always simmers (with reason) among the poor. Freaking out in public is a common occurrence, and indiscriminate shootings are far less unheard of than one would like. I’m afraid that if the Saints have a bad season, more than one person will pay with their lives.

I took some visiting friends to my favorite place in New Orleans the night of the Saints’ first regular-season game. It’s a backyard pizza operation that conducts business just one night a week, and purposefully keeps its online presence to a minimum. Pizza night usually features live music—mostly ragtag bands of players from established Frenchmen Street groups testing out new combos—but even my gourmet bohemian paradise was not outside Saints-mania’s reach: Instead of a band they had rigged up a projector to show the game on a sheet on the fence. My friends and I sat at one of the establishment’s signature wobbly tables cobbled together out of plywood and tree branches, paying as little attention to football as possible, despite the animated fan behind me. Casual observation placed him at about 40 years of age, and probably a lifelong resident of the shitty neighborhood in which pizza night takes place. He hooted and hollered and who-datted with gusto, and groaned when the opposing team marched upfield for their only touchdown of the game, which I watched on instant replay. The avid fan turned to me and held out his hand, indicating he expected a high-five. I obliged, somewhat confused. As we mutually gripped each other’s mandibles in the custom of these parts, his grip grew tight.

“For that,” he said, nodding toward the sheet.

“For that?” I said. I saw the enemy’s touchdown replayed.

“Fuck you, man,” he said. “I’m sick of this shit.” He turned around.

Sometimes things happen that are so out of step with your understanding of the world’s social construction that when your brain attempts to locate an appropriate reaction it comes up with the equivalent of an “Error” message, and you have no choice but to move forth in life as if the event had never happened, giving yourself time to consider other worldviews in an effort to make sense of it. Weeks after this particular occasion, the only conclusion I have come back to repeatedly is that, at the prompt of a touchdown against the Saints, this man had gone temporarily insane. I don’t know whether he thought I had been quietly and secretly cheering for the opposing team and his hand-clap trap was a way of outing me, or the “shit” he was “sick of” was my apparent non-anguish at the prospect of enemy gains. Either way, I can imagine his paranoid delusions replicated and intensified in the event of a serious Saints loss to the point of friends turning on each other in rage, drunken mobs destroying sports bars, and Bourbon Street going up in the flames of a riot.

The players of the New Orleans Saints have to know that their performance dramatically influences the welfare of their city, and I suspect that teams across the country know it, too. I can’t imagine anyone besides the same assholes who argued that New Orleans shouldn’t have been rebuilt post-Katrina not being touched by last year’s Cinderella season, and even diehard fans of opposing franchises rooting for the Saints under their breaths, because they knew the team’s undertaking was something much larger than football. But the characteristically short American memory will have forgotten any sympathy it held for the Saints nine months ago, and will view them only as the current champs—a role that our King of the Hill mentality always makes everyone’s favorite target. I’m not a fan of football but I’m a fan of the Saints, because I live in New Orleans and care about her. No city’s quality of life so sways with the whims of the sports gods as New Orleans, so for my sake and the sake of all those around me, I wish the team the best of luck, and hope for a successful season.

Who Dat!