Saints promotion to benefit concussion research

MINNEAPOLIS – The St. Paul Saints have a firm grasp on dry, witty humor. The minor league baseball team has proven so time and time again, exposing the hypocrisies and ridiculousness of athletes and professional sports through their clever promotions.

A Michael Vick chew toy mocked the then-Falcons quarterback and his dogfighting scandal. A Randy Moss hood ornament reminded fans of the time the former Vikings wide receiver ran his car into a traffic control officer. It was funny. It was lighthearted. But it only scratched the surface.

And that’s okay. The Saints don’t have to be profound. They don’t have to acknowledge the fact that Vick’s case was a symptom of a lack of education and a very real underground culture. They don’t have to point out that Moss is the classic example of what highly paid athletes can get away with.

They’re a minor league baseball team. The problems that plague professional sports don’t have to be their problems, and until now, the issues have hardly applied. Until now.

On Saturday, the Saints are going deeper. They’ve found a cause that’s worth treating with something more than a superficial laugh, the perfect fodder for both tongue-in-cheek mockery and enacting actual change. That cause is, of course, concussions, the issue du jour in sports that might be scarier and more socially relevant than any other.

The Saints’ promotion, which will go on during Saturday’s 6:05 p.m. home game against the Wichita Wingnuts, is titled “Bountygate II.” It’s not the first time that the Saints have played off their NFL counterparts – they wore football jerseys during batting practice after Katrina hit New Orleans and then auctioned them off, sending the funds to hurricane recovery – but this time, they’ve managed to balance fundraising with their special brand of humor.

During the game, the Saints organization will partner with the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and their new concussion research program, donating varying amounts of money based on the Saints’ accomplishments. It’s a play on hits – they’re dangerous in football, crucial in baseball – where a single is worth $100, a double $200 and a triple $300. Pitching counts, too: when the Saints force an opposing pitching change (a “knockout”), it’s worth $50, and Saints pitchers’ strikeouts (“punchouts”) are worth $10.

“There’s so many plays on words to have with this particular event,” St. Paul Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said. “Of course, in football hits are a big part of the game. In baseball, hits are a big part of the game. So we thought we had an opportunity to have some fun with what was happening relative to the bounty controversy but to do it for a good cause.”

And once again, the Saints have done it right. They’re mocking the NFL, which has made an example of New Orleans while doing so little about the hundreds of other cases where brutality has gone wrong and unchecked. They’re even mocking society a bit, for its incredulous anger at one team when what everyone takes issue with is ingrained within the psyche of a sport.

But they’re going beyond mockery, too. They’re acknowledging that inherent brutality, in football and other sports, and bringing it closer to home. Concussions don’t just mangle the NFL’s millionaires and former millionaires. They also plague high school and college athletes, even younger ones. Damage comes not only from the major hits on national television but also on the nondescript patches of grass where children who will never be famous smack into one another again and again, over the course of months and years.

I find myself reading more and more about the ramifications of brutality in football these days, and the stories aren’t those of superstars. They’re of amateur football players and teenagers, mediocre college students with no shot at the NFL. They’re no different from the boys I went to high school with, from my brother, even.

That’s when concussions become scary.

Bountygate is abstract. It’s people whom most of the world has seen only on television, with whom they have the most tenuous of connections. It’s wrong, but really, it’s a symptom of a league’s skewed culture and men whose priorities are twisted by fame and money and the toughness that’s so ingrained in their sport. Bountygate, the real one, is so far from the purview of the Saints, who are everymen, players who might never reach the major leagues and who will go on to live lives no different than the average American. And so they can mock it, but not fully, not when the problem at its root goes so much deeper into society.

This is one Saints promotion that no one should protest, not even fans of the other Saints in New Orleans who are still griping about their team being made a scapegoat. For now, that doesn’t matter, not when this obscure little baseball team by the railroad tracks in St. Paul is taking its own money and sending it off to fund concussion research. No one is making the Saints do this. They’re beloved, a part of the Twin Cities culture that has no real need to bolster their reputation with donations and feel-good acts. They’re doing this because it matters.

So here’s hoping that the Saints dominate on Saturday. No offense to the Wingnuts.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.