It occurred to me while reading the page-turner of a lawsuit filed by Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson’s spurned descendents that this saga could use a soundtrack. Something soaring and overwrought, like the theme to one of those prime-time soap operas from the 1980s, “Dallas” or “Dynasty” or “Falcon Crest.”
All the other elements are there — allegedly, anyway — the impaired patriarch, the scheming kids, the gold-digging interloper and, of course, the money. So much money.
Some of the details are so cinematic they almost sound scripted, like the charges by daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc that Tom Benson’s third wife Gayle fiercely controlled access to her aging husband, removed family pictures from his presence and stopped ensuring he had a healthy diet, instead plying him with ice cream, candy, soda and wine. Not to mention Tom Benson’s grand gesture, a missive banishing all three from his presence and from the family’s football, basketball and other businesses.
So why isn’t it all more entertaining?
Let’s start with the obvious. These aren’t Hollywood characters but real people we’ve all watched for years, even if we don’t know them personally, and they’re experiencing real pain.
Moreover, some elements of the story are universal. At some point, every family must face the mental and physical decline of a loved one, and it’s always wrenching.
Whether or not Tom Benson is really as diminished as the lawsuit claims, he’s 87 years old and already has experienced several health setbacks. Wherever things stand now, they’re unlikely to get much better and likely to get worse.
And some are cautionary, reminders that family-owned businesses can either help keep those families close or tear them apart.
Then there’s the fact that this is far from a private, family matter, because the Benson empire is not just a private, family business.
We may feel like voyeurs, but the rest of us have a stake in how this turns out, too. All of us, from the Louisiana taxpayers who built the two franchises’ facilities and have spent hundreds of millions on their upkeep, to the fans who buy tickets and merchandise, to the New Orleanians who will never forget how the Saints helped get them through the toughest of times — and who get that the continued presence of both teams signals the city’s survival, resurgence and big-league stature to the outside world.
Indeed, the Saints, and to a lesser extent the Pelicans, have played huge roles in creating a sense of civic stability since Hurricane Katrina. Tom Benson’s business resembles a newspaper that way: a private enterprise that’s also something of a public trust, on a psychological level, anyway. It’s supposed to be something people can count on to be there, day after day and year after year. Indeed, the state, the NFL and the NBA have all gone to great lengths to make sure the teams stay.
Tom Benson insists his move was designed to ensure stability, not jeopardize it. Team officials echo that message and promise the upheaval won’t spill over onto the football field or the basketball court. Maybe that’s true, although the exile of Rita LeBlanc, long promoted as the franchises’ future face and already a fixture in the city’s business community, isn’t likely to calm many nerves.
Nor is the likelihood of years of ugly litigation over the teams’ control. Sure, both teams are locked into deals with the state for another decade or so, but there’s always the possibility that the infighting could affect their ability to plan long term or attract players who want to know what they’re getting themselves into.
So better grab the popcorn and settle onto the couch. It looks like we’ve got ourselves the makings of a long-running show — whether we want one or not.