Benson Editorial

Benson should stay out of Louisiana, but leave Saints there

By TIM DAHLBERG= AP Sports Columnist= It was hard not to laugh when word came out that Saints owner Tom Benson went running to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for help after some commoners dared approach him following last week's game in Baton Rouge. Well, not exactly running. What Benson did was send Tagliabue an e-mail whining about fans who had the nerve not to bow or turn their heads away in his presence. He called his trip to watch the Saints play a ``total disaster.'' Maybe Benson hadn't noticed because he hasn't been to the area lately. But the real disaster happened some 80 miles down the road in the city where his football team used to play. You remember New Orleans. Lovely city, it was, before all the nastiness of Katrina. It's not so nice now. Much of the city was destroyed by water, and much of the rest is damaged and decaying. Levees still leak, and rats scamper through the French Quarter like Deuce McAllister breaking a screen play down the sideline. But if Benson thinks the reception was bad in Baton Rouge, he better make sure he stays out of the Big Easy. They haven't hanged him in effigy yet, though that might be only because they're too busy trying to rebuild their ravaged city. But they've come close. The other day there was a refrigerator on a sidewalk, tied up with some smelly, rotten stuff inside. On it was a message scribbled in spray paint: ``Do not open. Benson inside.'' You might think nearly four decades of ineptitude, two of them on Benson's watch, would do that to fans. But it didn't. These fans were so loyal that the Saints sold out the Superdome 36 times in a row before the streak ended late last year. Their reward? An imperious owner so eager to leave town that he's not above riding out on the back of the worst American natural disaster in decades. Benson may not be in Baton Rouge on Sunday, but the Saints will be.

They play the Bears as part of the NFL's plan to keep the team's ties with New Orleans while Tagliabue ponders how to navigate around the public relations quagmire Benson has created. The local peasantry offended Benson as he was leaving last week's loss to Miami at LSU's stadium. Offended him so much he lunged at a television camera, knocking it down, and then had a shouting match with a nearby fan. When you're a billionaire NFL owner, of course, it's always someone else's fault. So Benson dashed off an angry e-mail to Tagliabue vowing never to return to Baton Rouge. ``No person, much less the owner of an NFL team, should have either he, his family or his friends subjected to this form of danger, intimidation and abuse,'' Benson said in an e-mail obtained by The Times-Picayune and WWL-TV in New Orleans. Benson should know something about intimidation and abuse. He's delivered both to New Orleans and its patient fans over the years. It wasn't bad enough that he robbed the state's coffers by threatening to move a few years ago so he could make an extra $2 million a home game. Just as the state was running out of money to pay the extortion tax, the hurricane hit and Benson saw a new way to hammer the city. Contrast that to George Shinn, who was such a bad NBA owner that he was run out of Charlotte before moving his Hornets to New Orleans. Shinn looks like a hero in comparison to Benson in the wake of Katrina, raising money for reconstruction and vowing to return. Benson, meanwhile, has done nothing to discourage speculation he will be gone as soon as he can figure out how to break his Superdome lease. He communicates only with statements, refuses to commit his team to anything and fired a top executive who was a strong proponent of the team returning to New Orleans next season.

Much to Benson's dismay, the Superdome is being rebuilt, and officials say it could be ready to host the final three or four Saints games next year. The Saints, though, may never see the inside of the Superdome again. If they do, it will be because of Tagliabue's determination not to let this public relations fiasco get even worse. Tagliabue seems to understand what Benson doesn't _ that a greedy owner taking advantage of a natural disaster to make himself even more money isn't good for the league's image. If Tagliabue is serious about the Saints staying, he needs to do more than just appoint a committee to study the matter. He needs to sit Benson down, tell him he can't go to San Antonio or Los Angeles, and strongly suggest that it would be in his best interests to sell the team. The Saints can do without Tom Benson. New Orleans can't do without the Saints.