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A greener Saints team marches into the Superdome

Ten years after Katrina, the Saints begin their football season Sunday. Louisiana sports had grown a lot greener in the years since.

New Orleans is home to two major league pro sports teams, the NFL’s Saints and the Pelicans (formerly the Hornets) of the NBA. Tulane University, a member of the American Athletic Conference, is the only area school playing football at the Division I-FBS level. Has sustainability taken root in the decade since Katrina?

New Orleans Saints

No one watching the horrific events unfold in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina demolished chunks of the city will forget images of the Louisiana Superdome, the massive home of the NFL’s Saints, host to many Super Bowls, college football championship games and NCAA men’s basketball Final Fours. The damaged roof and the seemingly unending rows of Katrina refugees sleeping on the football field are indelibly etched on our minds.

And, for many, especially those of us who are sports fans, the sights and especially the incredibly loud sounds emanating from the Saints' return to the Superdome field on a Monday night in September 2006 (after a vagabond season in which they played “home” games at Giants Stadium, the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and at LSU in Baton Rouge) were a marker for the beginning of New Orleans’ comeback.

The city’s turnaround and resilience was mirrored by the Saints’ fortunes on the field. A laughingstock since the team’s inception in 1967 through the Katrina-ravaged season of 2005, the Saints rode the fans’ incredible energy in 2006 to win its division and advance to the NFC Championship in Chicago. They finished the job after the 2009 campaign, winning the club’s first and only Super Bowl.

The damaged roof and the seemingly unending rows of Katrina refugees sleeping on the football field are indelibly etched on our minds.

Given the prominence of the Saints in New Orleans’ collective psyche, how great would it be if the club became a green leader in a state not known for proactive attitudes on climate change?

The Saints, owned by Tom Benson and the Benson family, are traveling the green road, steadily if not spectacularly, especially when one considers that the Superdome is a 40-plus-year-old building (it’s much easier to be state-of-the-green-art with a new edifice). The team is a member of the Green Sports Alliance and its vice chairman, Rita Benson LeBlanc, took part in “Investing In The Future:  Supporting Sustainability From Top To Bottom,” a panel at the 2013 Alliance’s Summit in Brooklyn.

Those investments include a recycling program at the Superdome, in partnership with Progressive Waste Solutions. In advance of Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, the stadium underwent a $336 million renovation, which included a new LED lighting system (OK, the lights famously went out during the game, but we’re quibbling) and a new aluminum skin that improved the building’s insulation. A second round of energy efficiency upgrades, including even more advanced lighting, is out for bid this year.

New Orleans Pelicans

When Katrina hit, the NBA’s New Orleans entry was named the Hornets, as the aforementioned Benson family had bought the Charlotte franchise of the same name and moved it to NOLA in 2002. Eventually the NBA placed an expansion team in Charlotte for a second time, this one named the Bobcats. Bobcats owners, led by one Michael Jordan, wanted the Hornets name back; the Bensons obliged and a new name was needed.

According to a January 2013 club statement, the Pelicans name was chosen because “it symbolized Louisiana’s most pressing need for coastal restoration and wildlife conservation.” The health and sustainability of the region’s wetlands, recovering from the devastation of Katrina and the BP oil spill in 2010, among other disasters, thus became a cornerstone of the Pelicans’ community relations platforms.

Pelicans management has employed a mix of hands-on cleanup work, public relations initiatives, community education and fundraising:

  • The team took an active role in the cleanup of the BP oil spill through “Planet Rebound,” which deployed players and team staff to affected wetlands areas to rescue and clean oil-covered animals. That work continues today, five years after the oil spill.
  • “Toast For The Coast” is a high-profile, annual team fundraising event that supports its sustainability initiatives related to the Louisiana wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico. Fans interact with players and coaching staff, who in turn share their personal experiences in the wetlands.
  • The Pelicans and Audubon Nature Institute paired up on an environmental education initiative in schools and in the community focused on the preservation of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.
  • The Pelicans and Greater New Orleans, Inc. joined forces to make sure funds from the RESTORE Act — the federal trust fund that provides resources to spill-affected areas — continue to be directed to the Louisiana wetlands.

Tulane Green Wave

Katrina closed Tulane for four months and the long-term losses were staggering: All of the recordings in the Maxwell Music Library were lost and the Government Documents Archive lost over 90 percent of its 500,000-volume collection.

The school’s football program was, like the rest of the school, hit hard. But the team chose to play on after the storm, evacuating to Louisiana Tech in Ruston for the 2005 season. For its resilience, that year’s Green Wave squad received the Football Writers Association of America Annual Courage Award.

After the campus reopened and the team returned to New Orleans, the Green Wave set a much greener long term course. According to Liz Davey, director of Tulane’s Office of Sustainability, the school has two new LEED certified athletic facilities:

  • Yulman Stadium, the football facility that opened in 2014, was certified LEED Silver earlier this month. Most of the stadium’s storm water is directed to an underground rain water storage system underneath the practice field. The system, which helps reduce flooding from heavy rains by slowing the flow of water into the city’s drainage and pumping network, earned Tulane its first LEED credit for the management of storm water quantity. Students are also getting into the green act: At several games each year, volunteer organizations team up to encourage recycling in the tailgating area and near stadium entrances. Per Davey, “we averaged about 1.2 tons of recycling each Game Day during Yulman’s first season.”

  • The Hertz Center practice facility for Tulane basketball and volleyball was certified LEED Gold in 2012. One notable green feature of the Hertz Center: The court’s floors are made from wood that was sustainably grown and harvested, as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Expanding the inersection: Green; sports; and climate change

There is no doubt the Green-Sports intersection in New Orleans is vibrant these days. The pro and sports teams deserve credit for their efforts post-Katrina when more existential questions were front and center.

And yet, they have to do more.

Laurels cannot be rested upon when those greening efforts do not translate to a broad-based acceptance of climate change as fact, much less a sustained, meaningful push for action on climate change in the state.

The Superdome underwent a $336 million renovation, which included a new LED lighting system and a new aluminum skin that improved the building’s insulation.

The intersection between sustainability, sports and climate change needs to expand. And high profile sports teams that are already greening are perfectly positioned to connect the Green-Sports-Climate Change dots.

There are headwinds: Oil and natural gas is a huge business in the Gulf, with significant political influence. Bobby Jindal, the state’s governor and candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, just wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, telling him not to talk about climate change during his Katrina anniversary visit.

But the odds were long that the Saints would even stay in New Orleans, post-Katrina.

Yet, the Saints will be marching into the Superdome for their home opener Sunday vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That is reality. So is climate change. If the Saints publicly acknowledge the latter, there will be some blowback. But nothing like the blowback that took place 10 years ago.

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