The craziest New Orleans Saints offseason stories: No. 3, The Benson family feud
By John Hendrix
The New Orleans Saints offseason was quite memorable, to say the very least. We continue our mini-series that focuses on the five biggest and most shocking storylines from the past several months. We started with the Pierre Thomas release, and then shifted to the Keenan Lewis outburst. Today, we focus on owner Tom Benson.
The Benson family drama
Aug 7, 2015; Canton, OH, USA; New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson (left) and wife Gayle Benson at groundbreaking ceremony for the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The New Orleans Saints have had Tom Benson as their owner dating back to 1985. Benson originally acquired the Saints after learning that the team was rumored to be on the move to Jacksonville, Florida. It was one of the greatest investments he ever made.
Benson, who just turned 88 in July, has witnessed it all during his nearly 30 years with the franchise. However, things took an interesting turn after Benson publicly stated on January 21, 2015 that he was turning over control of the Saints and Pelicans to his wife, Gayle Benson, instead of his granddaughter Rita Benson Leblanc.
"Gayle will own the teams upon my death and as I noted Rita will not be involved in the ownership or management of the Saints or Pelicans,” Mr. Benson said. “My family, just as they have been for their entire lives, will be well taken care of. The reason for my decision is about laying the foundation for the organization to continue to be successful.”"
On the very next day, Tom Benson’s family filed a suit to pause the ownership plans. In a nutshell, Rita, Ryan and Renee LeBlanc were named as petitioners in the suit, basically claiming that Benson was too old and unfit to manage the operations of his NFL and NBA franchises.
Benson saw his assets frozen by a Texas judge in the process. Judge Thomas E. Rickhoff of Bexar County, TX signed a restraining order that prevented Benson from transactions within the Shirley L. Benson Testamentary Trust — Shirley Landry was his first wife who passed away in 1980.
Benson fought back accordingly, and gained much support in the process from general manager Mickey Loomis, quarterback Drew Brees, and many others involved in his affairs.
On February, 10, 2015, Benson issued a statement surrounding the lawsuit filed by his family members.
"I have instructed my attorneys to spare no effort in defending my rights and the decisions I have made. The decisions I have made are well within my rights to make at any point in my life, and rest assured that I am making sound decisions. I need not look any further than to read the allegations made against me in these multiple lawsuits to rest easy that I have made the correct decisions. As I stated on January 22, the decisions I am making now will benefit the long term success, stability and continuity of the New Orleans Saints, Pelicans and all of the businesses I have built. With stability and continuity comes success and with success comes great things for our community, our city, our state and most importantly, our fans."
After several months of different tests and observations, Benson won his competency hearing on June 18, 2015 after a judge ruled in his favor, denying the petition by his heirs. Less than a week later, his heirs filed a ruling appeal. A trust fund trial is set for next June.
As ugly as the feud went, the fact remains that Tom Benson is the New Orleans Saints. His impact is felt throughout the football world, just look at his recent kind act of generosity to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His $11 million donation was the largest gift in their 51-year history. Benson will see a bronze statue erected in his honor during a two-year stadium renovation process.
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