Have NFL and its players done enough to help rebuild New Orleans?

Published 4:42 pm Thursday, September 21, 2006

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, Warrick Dunn was so disturbed by the devastation in his home state that he wanted to do something extraordinary to help.

So the Atlanta Falcons’ notably philanthropic running back challenged his fellow NFL players to give $5,000 apiece — a gesture that would have raised more than $8 million if everyone had chipped in.

A year later, Dunn has been able to donate $381,000 to Habitat for Humanity in his hometown of Baton Rouge, a much-needed infusion of cash but far short of the lofty total he hoped to collect in those gut-wrenching days after the levees broke in New Orleans.

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Dunn insisted Wednesday that he’s not disappointed by the response, even though it represents about 76 players making the full donation — not even enough to fill two rosters in a 32-team league where the average salary was $1.4 million last season.

“Even though I challenged guys (to donate $5,000), my challenge was more for guys to do something,” he said. “If you’re not going to give money, let’s do something. A lot of teams did that. A lot of guys came together and bought supplies, donated things, flew down there.”

As a whole, the NFL’s owners, players and fans have donated $22 million to the recovery effort, and the league also committed $15 million to help rebuild the Superdome. Those numbers pale in comparison to the average value of a franchise (Forbes puts it at $898 million), the salary cap for each team ($102.5 million) and the operating income for the league as a whole ($985.6 million in 2005, according to Forbes).

“Nothing is ever enough. If you add up the cost of the destruction, $22 million is peanuts,” Dunn said. “The league has a stance and did what it felt like it needed to do. As a country, we have to go far and beyond sometimes. We have to go in our pockets and do a little bit extra. It’s not just up to the league. Everybody needs to come together.”

Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s director of corporate communications, pointed to a long list of fundraising efforts since the hurricane slammed into New Orleans with its 145 mph winds, killing nearly 2,000 people, displacing hundreds of thousands and causing unimaginable misery.

An NFL-organized telethon on ABC just three weeks after Katrina raised $5 million. Owners and players made hefty donations. Fans were asked to donate money when they attended games. Stars such as Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Steve McNair got personally involved in the delivery of supplies to the Gulf Coast.

The money continues to flow. The Saints contributed $100,000 this week to the NFL’s youth education center in New Orleans, which was destroyed by the storm, and will soon announce plans to help rebuild 40 football fields and Louisiana and Mississippi. A Super Bowl-style celebration, including performances by U2 and Green Day, is planned before the Saints-Falcons game to help bring in more money for the cause.

“We’re focused on generating funds and awareness, and we’ve been able to do that unlike any other industry,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “We’ve been a shining example.”

He said the NFL’s contribution goes beyond dollars and cents.

Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was a key proponent of keeping the Saints from moving to another city and pushed along plans to renovate the Superdome. The league and its various partners have brought immeasurable exposure to New Orleans’ plight. And, judging from the euphoria that has swept over the city in the buildup to Monday’s game, there’s little doubt that an unbeaten NFL team is providing a much-needed diversion from the day-to-day grind of rebuilding.

“The NFL presents much more than games on Sunday and Mondays,” McCarthy said. “We can use the popularity of our teams and our players to generate a tremendous amount of awareness and funds for the Gulf Coast region. That commitment continues.”

New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister, who has been prominent in the recovery effort, praised those who gave while expressing no hard feelings toward those who didn’t.

“You can always say that not enough is being done,” he said. “But you’ve got to put everything in perspective and look at what each individual has going on in his life. If someone finds the time to give something or do something special for these people, we’re definitely thankful for it.”

Dunn has focused his efforts on building houses in Baton Rouge for those displaced by Katrina, a natural extension of his “Home for the Holidays” program that helps single-mother families get into their first home.

It’s a slow process. Most of the local contractors are committed to projects in devastated New Orleans, about an hour’s drive away, but Dunn plans to stay involved for years to come. He’s also hoping to hook up with a Saints player who can run a Home for the Holidays-style program in the Big Easy.

“A lot of people are not thinking about a year from now, two years from now,” Dunn said. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen down the road.”