Can the Saints Really Save New Orleans? How a Super Bowl Victory Could Enhance the Health of a City

by Molly O'Toole

With the Super Bowl approaching, stories of the New Orleans Saints as the ultimate happy ending abound, along with the idea that a victory on Sunday might somehow repair a city that broke with the levees after Hurricane Katrina. Casting Drew Brees, Scott Fujita, and Co. as the stewards of a broken city's salvation is too juicy an angle for the nation's sportswriters to pass up. But while Saints as saviors make for a nice metaphor, is it really that simple?

There's no doubt that New Orleans is still suffering from the psychic scars of Hurricane Katrina, and to say a football game will change all that is both reductive and unreasonable: in the years following the storm, 11 percent of New Orleans residents reported a serious mental illness, with the number of mild to moderate mental illness doubling from 10 to 20 percent in people heavily affected by Katrina, says Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, medical director in the Office of Health Policy for New Orleans. Some research indicated that half the region's population has an anxiety or mood disorder, and that one out of every three citizens is currently dealing with posttraumatic stress. Three times more New Orleanians committed suicide in 2009 than in 2006, the year following the hurricane. Still, there is a body of evidence that suggests unifying behind a home team on a hot streak has positive mental, physical, and even economic benefits.

Recent research debunks the idea of the passive spectator, wordlessly watching his or her favorite team play out their shared destiny. Even moderate supporters of sports teams exhibit a significant range of physiological symptoms on game day.

Prof. Len Zaichkowsky of the sports-psychology program at Boston University School of Medicine and School of Education compares the "eustress," or good stress characteristics, of spectating to the stress-relieving benefits associated with sexual activity. The heart rate increases in a moderate, controlled way, which improves cardiovascular strength, and the accompanying endorphins highly correlate with longevity and the absence of disease. Just cheering for your team is enough to provide a positive rush, but a victory produces an even stronger boost.

A winning team is also able to boost the collective confidence of its fans, which in turn creates tangible results, says Indiana University psychology professor Edward Hirt. (That the study comes from Colts country makes no difference.) In his study of Big Ten basketball, Hirt found that many fans identify so strongly with their teams that victory and defeat become personal. On a range of tests, fans basking in their team's reflected glory after a win felt more optimistic about their own abilities, from mastering mental puzzles to resisting romantic rejection.

This sense of confidence and camaraderie has far-reaching benefits. "In this country, we can't even agree on a bill in Congress," says Dr. Richard Lustberg, founder of the Web site Psychology of Sports. "But the city of New Orleans is united around the Saints—the tremendous degrees of euphoria, connectedness, this provides, all the psychological benefits … you can't underestimate those kinds of connections."

Those benefits include a noticeable boost in the city's health. Zaichkowsky calls this phenomenon of collective feelings associated with a team "community mood states." He first observed the trend in anecdotal evidence in Boston, where patients' health seemed to improve in hospitals when the Red Sox were having a successful season. According to Zaichkowsky, worldwide observations of this occurrence have carried it well beyond the anecdotal; measurements of mood fluctuations based on fans' own reports show lower rates of distress and depression for whole groups with the success of their favorite team. The powerful impact that sports teams can have on the mood of entire cities says that for our society, it's more than "just a game."

(Happiness not enough? Well, how about a little cold, hard cash? Last month a study published in the journal Economic Inquiry found that success of the National Football League home team yielded direct economic benefits, resulting in about a $100 increase in personal income per resident each year.)

If nothing else, a victory might go a long way to helping restore a sense of community to residents of New Orleans—many of whom were displaced across the country following Katrina, says Crear-Perry, a longtime resident of the city.

"Building a sense of community that we had lost for a while sounds superficial, but it's something we can hold on to," says Crear-Perry. "There are all kinds of studies that happier people pay more attention to their emotional state, [which] makes you live longer, and all of those things—the entire city is so wrapped up in that happiness we are getting from the Saints." (And make no mistake: the entire city really is wrapped up in Saintsmania.)

But the question on many people's minds is: what happens to the seeming healing power of the Saints if they lose on Sunday? No matter the outcome, the symbol of the Saints will survive, says Dr. Kevin Stevens Sr., health director for the city of New Orleans. "Having them play in the Dome really just symbolizes how you can recover," he says. "Just because you're down, you don't have to stay down; it doesn't mean that you can't rebuild."