The 34th annual Bayou Classic between Southern University and Grambling State took place at the New Orleans Superdome this year. Being played on Thanksgiving weekend, that groggy time of leftovers and family reunion set within the holiday season, the Bayou Classic was surely watched by plenty of people. In addition to the seventy thousand in attendance, countless more tuned in from across the country for a dose of Saturday afternoon football. And with good reason; Southern University was seven and two this season and Grambling State’s record was even better – eight wins and only one loss.
Other than reporting what happened down on the field, the commentators made note of the importance of the Bayou Classic itself – a historic rivalry between two African American colleges with remarkably close statistics – sixteen wins for Grambling and seventeen for Southern. They mentioned Eddie Robinson too, Grambling’s coach of fifty six years who died last April at age eighty-eight. Robinson coached his team to over four-hundred victories, retiring in 1997 as one of the most celebrated coaches in all of football. And finally, as most often happens these days when New Orleans is brought in front of the national media, Hurricane Katrina was looked back on, and the Bayou Classic was used as one more example of the city’s recovery from its 2005 devastation.
Coincidently, for the past twelve years the lead sponsor for the Bayou Classic has been State Farm Insurance. In fact, the technical name for the match up is the State Farm Bayou Classic, lest anyone forget that State Farm has made a commitment to Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast, particularly during these last two years. In the months following Hurricane Katrina, State Farm pushed on and made sure that the Bayou Classic still took place, albeit in Huston. During the three months between August 29th and Thanksgiving of 2005, the Superdome had yet to receive the nearly $200 million in repairs that it would eventually need to reopen. But State Farm, Louisiana’s largest home insurer at over 30%, wasn’t about to deny anyone the right to watch football.
This Thanksgiving, amid the retrospectives of Eddie Robinson’s achievements and the candid views of a thriving French Quarter, TV viewers of the Bayou Classic were once again treated to commercials promising them a safe and secure future. By signing up for a State Farm homeowner’s policy, complete with hurricane protection (unless they happen to live in Mississippi, where, as of February 2007 the nation’s largest home insurer has decided not to take on any new customers, or in southern Louisiana, where they aren’t looking for business either), they’ll be covered against any type of storm damage that doesn’t involve water. Apparently, out of all the problems that arise during a hurricane, including among other things; wind damage, flooding, fires, loss of electricity, toppled infrastructure and a whole lot of pretty questionable drinking water it’s the wind damage that State Farm has agreed to pay for. Which is an ironic kind of a bummer considering that it was indeed a windy storm surge that pushed all that water onto the Gulf Coast in the first place.
So it was that last month the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in favor of State Farm in a lawsuit filed by an unfortunate Mississippi couple who had lost their home to flooding during one very wet hurricane. After a year of trial and the eventual deciphering of State Farm policies by teams of lawyers and insurance experts, it was decided that the company had been clear in expressing their limitations damage from a hurricane and damage inflicted by the water carried in a hurricane are not the same thing. The fact that so many were needed to understand what was concluded to be unambiguous, may have in itself raised question to State Farm’s defense. But in the end the company recently brought up on racketeering charges and accused by its ex-employees of manipulating customer claims, the one privy to the malicious methods of the “Advanced Claims Excellence” project developed by the McKinsey Company to help insurers pay the minimum in retributions, the leader of an industry that in 2005 still managed to make $49 billion in profits despite it’s losses incurred during hurricane season, and who emerged from the tragedy with a reputation made cleaner thanks to the egregious offenses of its competitor, Allstate that company, State Farm, managed to defeat John and Claire Tuepker of Long Beach, Mississippi, and in doing rendered their $350,000 homeowners policy worthless.
Now I don’t know if Mr. and Mrs. Tuepker are football fans or not. My guess is they are, but that doesn’t really matter. The point is, on Thanksgiving weekend, while State Farm commercials aired every couple minutes and pictures of families with two kids and a dog appeared on the TV set, it was a little easier not to think about things like insurance policies or flood damage, because after all, there was a damn good football game going on. Southern University won twenty-two to thirteen. And while it can be argued that things like football games and a restored Superdome are exactly what the Gulf Coast needs right now, not just to buoy spirits but also to increase revenues from tourism, could it be that the Bayou Classic, the well intentioned and highly regarded event that it is, isn’t so much a catalyst for change as it is another means for us all to concentrate on something other than our problems? You know, those pesky downers like defunct hospitals, crippled police forces, crime ridden streets and some embarrassingly inadequate public schools those things that we in New Orleans get to face everyday.
Surely enough, the folks at State Farm seem well aware of the gravity of the situation around here. They don’t even want our business anymore. On November 24th they were quick to make us think otherwise though, to remind us that New Orleans is making steps to recover. While in reality it’s their refusal to write new policies that serves as one more chokehold on the city’s growth, discouraging new ownership as attrition takes the place of what might have been opportunity. We saw their little red logo appear as the Southern University and Grambling students took the field. We sat back in our chairs, hopefully safe, hopefully with our families, hopefully in whatever city it was we wanted to be in and underneath a roof that felt enough like home, and we watched the game unfold once again.
PETER ZINN is a graduate student living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: email@example.com