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A city for the Saints

October 29, 2005

LIKE THE NEW YORK YANKEES in the aftermath of 9/11, the New Orleans Saints can claim to be America's team in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And on Sunday, the Saints are playing their first game in Louisiana since the storm, albeit in Baton Rouge, not New Orleans.

The more interesting skirmish involving the nomadic Saints these days isn't taking place on the gridiron, however. It's the political tug-of-war over whether the team will stay in New Orleans. And this is a contest the league needs to fix -- National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL owners have to do everything in their power to keep the Saints in New Orleans.

The Saints have been restless for years, eyeing a potential move to San Antonio or Los Angeles, even after the state of Louisiana agreed to a much-criticized $186-million subsidy to keep the team there.

The Saints play in the Superdome, the league's third-oldest venue and one now associated with haunting images of huddled Katrina survivors. Team owner Tom Benson has long wanted a new stadium, and an exit clause in the team's contract allows it to leave after paying an $81-million penalty at the end of this season. This week, Benson paid lip-service to wanting to stay in New Orleans -- but only under the right circumstances.

Tagliabue, who has ably presided over the league since 1989, needs to put a stop to all this speculation. He has to be mindful of Benson's business concerns, but all NFL owners, eager to protect the league's brand, need to find a way to recommit to New Orleans. It's bad enough for franchises to move in the best of times, but for football to abandon New Orleans now would be a disaster for the league's image.

As for Tagliabue's desire to see a team again in Los Angeles before he retires, the city is happy to welcome an expansion franchise (though not happy enough to subsidize it). But the NFL should know that we do not want any part of the Saints.

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