- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

There is only one certainty about the New Orleans Saints’ future: They will live and work out of the Marriott Riverwalk in San Antonio for a while.

Beyond that, question marks abound. It’s highly unlikely they will be able to hold their home opener Sept. 18 at the Superdome — and they may not be able to play there at all this season after the stadium was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

So that first game against the New York Giants could be at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Or at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. Or even at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.

And all of those sites could be the venue of other home games for the Saints, who escaped the hurricane by flying with their families last weekend to San Jose, Calif. New Orleans plays at Oakland tonight in its final preseason game.

While the Saints and NFL officials have been discussing a variety of alternatives, they haven’t talked yet with many of the people at the proposed sites.

“We can say is LSU an option, yeah, but is it an option with them?” Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said yesterday by phone from San Jose. “That’s the next hurdle. We haven’t crossed that hurdle yet.”

Only one hurdle has been crossed.

Following the Raiders game, the Saints will go to San Antonio, where they will stay at the same hotel they did last season when Hurricane Ivan chased them out of New Orleans in the second week of the regular season.

The Saints also will use the same practice facilities at Trinity University, so they will have, as Bensel put it, “a certain comfort level with where we are.”

That would seem to make the Alamodome, which holds 65,000 for football, a logical alternative, although it’s about 550 miles from New Orleans — farther than the NFL would like.

But at this point, no one really knows the options.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and league officials have discussed the situation over the past few days. Location hasn’t been the most important topic.

“We’ve been talking about how we as a league can assist with relief efforts,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. “Not only for Saints players and officials and their families but also for a lot of other players in the league who live or have families in the region.”

Late yesterday the NFL announced it was donating $1 million to the American Red Cross to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

During a team meeting, a few Saints players questioned whether playing a game at this time was appropriate — but most players thought it might be a morale booster for the city flooded by the hurricane.

“It might be a ray of light for the people who can’t get out of town,” tight end Shad Meier said.

Receiver Joe Horn said, “As football players, as a team, I think this game is going to be good for us. We’ve got to give our fans something, something to look forward to. At least they’ll know that we’re going to go out there and play as hard and the best we can to show the fans that we love them.

“In this business, the NFL must go on. That’s just the way it is. The games are going to be played, regardless.”

The Saints aren’t the only ones in sports affected by the damage done to the 65,000-seat Superdome. Bowl Championship Series spokesman Bob Burda said Sugar Bowl officials hope to meet within the next few weeks to talk about what to do with the game scheduled there Jan.2.

“It’s just too early on their end to even speculate,” said Burda, adding that bowl officials had been in contact with BCS coordinator Kevin Weiberg.

It’s unlikely officials would want to let the Sugar Bowl leave Louisiana, even for just a year. Independence Stadium, home of the Independence Bowl, in Shreveport has been renovated in recent years and holds about 53,000. Tiger Stadium also could be a plausible option, with a capacity of almost 92,000.

The storm has caused the NCAA to consider temporarily changing some of its rules that place restrictions on travel costs and benefits being given to athletes’ families as players and universities recover from the destruction.

“Any rule that can negatively impact an institution or the student-athletes, I think we’ll be proactive in,” said Steve Mallonee, the NCAA’s managing director for membership services. “The message we’d like is that we have a process that can and will be flexible to any of our institutions that are impacted.”

Other potential changes include allowing athletes to compete even if they’re not enrolled in school — since there is the possibility that some schools may not be able to immediately hold classes — and allowing teams to practice where games are played, Mallonee said.

Mallonee acknowledged that the effect of rules changes could be far reaching and not necessarily limited to the hardest-hit areas along the Gulf Coast.

For instance, Mallonee said, if Southern California had a basketball player who lived in New Orleans, the NCAA might ease travel restrictions to help the athlete return to Los Angeles for classes without worrying about violating NCAA rules.

For the Saints, no option seems ideal, including the unlikely scenario of playing their entire schedule on the road.

Switching their home opener to the Meadowlands is a problem because the Giants share their stadium with the New York Jets, who are scheduled to play Miami at home that day.

There has been talk of using Reliant Stadium in Houston, but the Texans are home Sept. 18 against Pittsburgh.

The last time a game was shifted on short notice was Oct. 27, 2003, when the Chargers and Miami Dolphins met at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., after wildfires in Southern California prevented the game from being played in San Diego. That was a regularly scheduled Monday night contest and no admission was charged — 73,000 people attended, far more than usually attend Arizona Cardinals games at the same venue.

But this is likely to be more than a one-shot deal and few of the alternatives seem particularly enticing.

Both the league and the Saints would like to stay as close to home as possible, although other stadiums are showing interest in having them. LSU provides the closest option but the Alamodome would give the Saints a playing environment most like the Superdome, including a similar field surface.

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