Eye of the Storm
Charm needed after lawsuits paint Gayle Benson in an unfavorable light
A drama is unfolding in New Orleans that has all the hallmarks of a tragedy of the ages. It mirrors Old Testament, Greek and Shakespearian calamities — a marginal character, through his own talent and gifts, rises to ultimate heights only to lose all the glory and status he obtained in the end.
The story begins in medias res with a man who grew from a poor boy who worked diligently to put himself through parochial school, built a financial empire of banks and automotive dealerships and joined the nation’s elite as a billionaire owner of franchises — one a world championship team — in two of the world’s premier professional sports leagues. But now that he’s reached his zenith, could a family feud cause him to lose it all?
Already a year into a heady legal battle with family members over his nearly $2 billion empire — including ownership of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans — this past Tuesday, a long-time former employee filed an amended lawsuit in federal court against Tom Benson, 88, that alleges racial discrimination, lack of appropriate pay and wrongful termination.
Squarely in the middle of both lawsuits is the influence Benson’s wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004, has over him and his business decisions.
Last January, Benson announced that he would change an irrevocable trust that was to give control of the teams to his adopted daughter, Renee LeBlanc, and her children, Ryan LeBlanc and Rita LeBlanc. Instead, he said that he would not only give full control of both teams to his wife, but also that he wanted nothing further to do with Renee, Ryan and Rita. The LeBlancs sued, arguing Tom Benson is no longer mentally competent due to age and illness, and they are being forced out of the relationship they previously enjoyed with him. A judge ruled that he is capable of running his businesses, but that decision is being appealed.
This week, Benson’s personal assistant for nearly 25 years, Rodney Henry, alleged Gayle Benson treated him with “disdain and disrespect,” twice referring to him as a “black son of a bitch,” and screaming at him “I hate you” after Tom Benson was angered at learning that she made Henry stay in a small room with no air conditioning and a child-size bed at the teams’ training camp facility at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
The Saints issued a statement on Wednesday denying wrongdoing and claiming the “ridiculous accusations” caused the Bensons extreme hurt.
“Make no mistake, the Bensons and the New Orleans Saints will vigorously defend these baseless claims,” the statement read.
Individually, the suits are troubling — especially if they are found to have merit — but combined they could grow from being nuisances to having a devastating affect on the future of both teams.
This week, when Forbes released its 19th annual valuations of the NBA’s 30 teams, the Pelicans were ranked dead last. While the average NBA team is now worth $1.25 billion, the Pelicans are estimated to be worth $650 million dollars. Forbes cited Benson’s ongoing legal proceedings over succession of the Pelicans and the Saints in their explanation for the team’s last place ranking.
On the court and the field, the Pelicans and the Saints don’t appear to be reaching their potential. The Saints just finished 7-9 for the third time in four years. The Pelicans were expected to be a breakout team in the NBA this season. As of press time, they’re winning roughly a third of their games, posting a 14-27 record.
Being a losing team and trying to keep, much less attract, talent is hard enough. But in the nation’s current political climate, any association of racism can be crippling to professional sports franchises that play in leagues like the NFL, where 68 percent of players are black, and NBA, where 74 percent of players are black. Would New Orleans be an attractive landing spot for draftees, free agents, coaches, and their families if ownership were even remotely thought to have an inhospitable reputation?
Increasingly, leagues are policing their own, including team owners, to ensure as positive an image as possible is cast to the public. Two years ago, the NBA banned for life Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after recordings of him making racist comments were made public. The next month, essentially pushed out by the league, Sterling’s wife sold the team.
Could that happen here? Would the NBA relieve itself of another potential race problem by forcing a sale of the Pelicans? And what would be potential repercussions?
There is a lot of money on the table, and there’s the potential for a lot more to be made in the coming years. After losing the Supersonics to Oklahoma City, the league has had an eye on returning to Seattle, a larger and richer market than New Orleans. What owner would vote against their financial interests to keep the lowest valued team in its current market?
The accusations against the Bensons have the potential to get uglier by the day. While information included in these suits paint a bleak picture, Gayle Benson has been praised from the likes of archbishop Gregory Aymond, quarterback Drew Brees and many, many others. There is no reason to doubt her character.
However, a resolution as soon as possible would be best for all stakeholders involved.
For the sake of the Benson family, the teams, and ultimately the fans and the city, a charm offensive needs to be launched from 5800 Airline Drive. Otherwise, all attached to the Saints, Pelicans, and, by extension, New Orleans may be seeing not only the beginning of the end of Benson’s reign, but also the unraveling of his carefully crafted dream of a dynasty.
That would be tragic.