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Viewpoint: Choosing sides in the latest Benson boogie

Gayle Benson (far left), Tom Benson (Center), and Tootsie Benson )far right)

Gayle Benson (far left), Tom Benson (Center), and Tootsie Benson

I’m on Team Gayle.

New Orleanians are not ones to sit quietly on the sidelines, whatever the sport du jour. So it’s no surprise that, as the internal squabbles of Tom Benson’s family troubles go very external, everyone is taking sides.

When Benson decided to hand over control of the Saints and the Pelicans to his wife, Gayle, instead of his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, the city got its own kind of Superbowl. If, that is, you consider the Superbowl a blood sport.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

My own professional polling (lunchtime dishing, online comment threads and water-cooler conversation) indicates that Team Gayle is leading Team Rita by about four to one. People in New Orleans tend to champion the individual over the institution, and in this case most seem to think that Tom Benson can do pretty much whatever he wants with his money and his teams.

The general consensus, too, is that Gayle is more likely to keep the ship sailing smoothly and, more importantly, docked in New Orleans. There’s little (besides a hurricane) that can unite this community faster and more completely than the words “move the Saints.” Not that either woman has indicated any desire to do so, but still, this line of thinking goes, Gayle is a New Orleans girl while Rita officially remains a resident of Texas.

At any rate, the Gayle-versus-Rita repartee is zinging back and forth faster than an under-inflated football in a playoff game. Among verbal passes being tossed about in chat forums:

Maybe if Gayle wins, when she dies, the team will go to the Archdiocese. (NFL games in Rome, anyone?)

We should sell the team to Gary Chouest and move it to Galliano. (Football on the bayou!)

This internal strife tanked the season: Just look at how the team started losing at home (unprecedented) and winning on the road. (Conspiracy 101)

This is playing out like King Lear. Or the Medicis. (Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.)

While neither Team Gayle nor Team Rita is speaking about the rift, public leakage is upping the score. How can it not, when a lawsuit is filed with subtitles like “The Coup Attempt,” and dishes out juicy if unsubstantiated details – “he only eats candy and red wine!’; “He doesn’t know the name of the president!” I don’t know about you, but I’m incorporating “on information and belief” into my reporting style from now on.

So why Team Gayle? Mainly because I know well several of the more than 30 assistants that Rita zipped through in less than six years. So my knowledge is admittedly one-sided, but the firsthand anecdotes persuasive. Things like the tantrum thrown by Team Rita when a national magazine wanted to photograph her at a Magazine Street boutique she deemed beneath her.

When one former assistant posts the story about Team Rita’s demise on Facebook under the caption DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD! – well, you know that at least this member of Team Gayle has passion.

Ultimately, of course, as with most sports, the fans are the last to know what really goes on in the locker room. Meanwhile, we will endlessly conjecture and throw our support behind one or the other.

In the end, we will all be losers. Teams Gayle and Rita and all their backers. But, saddest of all, the city of New Orleans.


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