SI's Peter King: Open letter to Tom Benson
It's been a heck of a couple of weeks, capped off by the emotionally wrenching 23-20 victory that had America cheering for your team yesterday in Carolina. I feel for you and for everyone who has a home or business in the affected parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. A family friend, Josh Norman, is a reporter for the Biloxi Sun-Herald and he has been embedded in a destroyed region, witnessing death and devastation and smelling decaying death. "There's no other smell like it,'' Norman told me on the phone the other day. "It's unmistakable.'' And what was Josh doing yesterday, on a well-earned day off? Watching NFL games at a friend's place, a home that wasn't destroyed -- and, miraculously, still had cable.
I asked him if the NFL should be playing games with the immense swath of destruction on the Gulf Coast.
"Absolutely!'' he said. "People desperately want to watch football. People need football right now.''
Which, Tom, is why I'm writing this public letter to you. These people need the Saints. This region needs the Saints, now more than any other time in the 38-year history of the franchise. And the future of this team -- and I would say even this incredibly needy region -- is in your hands as much as any single person in the United States right now. You want to know what the displaced people in Houston and Dallas and all over America want to hear right now? They want to hear you make a clear, unmistakable declaration that the Saints will stay in New Orleans, no matter what infrastructure hurdles stand in the way over the next few years and no matter how incredibly lucrative it would be for you to move the team. They want to hear you say: "There's no way on God's green earth we're moving this franchise. We will be a part of any reconstruction effort the city of New Orleans plans, and we'll get through this painful chapter in our lives together. We'll do it in New Orleans, nowhere else.''
You've come reasonably close to saying something like that. Last week, you issued a statement that said, in part, "As we move forward together, the Saints look forward to serving as a leader in the rebuilding and the revitalization of our great community.'' That's good. But it doesn't say what needs to be said. It doesn't scare off the vultures that soon will circle from the cities that would love to have your team play there. San Antonio and Red McCombs will be first in line. There will be others. I've said for months the specter of the Los Angeles Saints is a great possibility. And maybe before Hurrican Katrina, it would have been understandable for you to make the best deal you could make in a better market. But not now. Not anymore. Now is the time to do the right thing.
It is incredibly presumptuous for me to stick my nose in your business. Probably stupid, too. But I noticed Forbes reported last week that your franchise is worth $718 million. With all the trouble and the fights you've had with the Louisiana legislature, you still have one of the most valuable sports teams on the planet. If you cut and ran, which I'm not at all suggesting you're going to do, the value of the franchise would rise to, what, $900 million in a city with a new stadium? So what? How much money is enough in this world?
And as ridiculous as it sounds to be talking about a new stadium when so much of your city needs to be rebuilt, believe me: Money will be there for a first-class stadium. Somehow, some way.
Talking to people in your organization in the last couple of weeks, I've heard so much about your generosity and care for your employees. With all the stories of companies in New Orleans dissolving with the flood, and employees going uncompensated because businesses aren't there anymore, you've paid everyone and made sure everyone's family is well-cared for. That's admirable. You're showing the character of a native whose roots run deep in the city, which they do. You rose from nothing, were educated in the city, and gave a city fueled largely by tourism something to feel proud of, even in the days when all the Saints did was lose. Well, the Saints are on their way to becoming America's Team (don't laugh; I can feel the groundswell), and imagine what it would mean to the region if you announced you were going to be the foundation of the reconstruction.
That's why I urge you to think with your heart, not your wallet. Say it loud, with conviction: Under no circumstances will the Saints leave New Orleans -- unless there's not going to be a New Orleans anymore. And we know that's not going to happen.
Last night, after another native son, Peyton Manning, led the Colts past the Ravens in Baltimore, he told me about his mercy mission to Baton Rouge last week. Manning and his brother Eli took a planeload of supplies to those in need. I could see how much he'd been affected by the people he met. Like the man who watched his handicapped wife float away in the flood, then stayed afloat himself for hours until he was finally rescued. What an emotional story. "Then,''' Manning told me, "the guy said to me, 'Hey, how's your dad? How's your house?' I mean, all he'd been though, and he asks me about my dad. Incredible. But that's what New Orleans people are like. They care.''
And right now these people need you, Tom. Lead this city back. You can do it. What's more, you have to do it. No one else can.
Best wishes for an inspirational season,
Also, check out this New York Times article by Michael MacCambridge, entitled "Saints and NFL can lead way in wake of storm."