NFL commissioner Roger Goodell strongly supported New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson when asked Friday about allegations that the 87-year-old is no longer mentally and physically fit to run his business operations.
Goodell twice referred to Benson as being in "complete control," though the commissioner acknowledged the family's legal battle over Benson's changed succession plan is "unfortunate."
Benson was sued last week by his former heirs -- daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc -- after he announced plans to leave control of his vast business empire to his wife, Gayle, instead of them. Benson's daughter and grandchildren are claiming that he's not mentally capable of making such a decision and that he's under the undue influence of his third wife, whom he married in 2004.
"I spoke to Tom Benson just the other day," Goodell said during his annual Super Bowl press conference in Arizona. "He was going into the office as usual. He was in complete control, energetic, excited about getting to the office, asking about league issues. As you know, he's been one of our more active owners in the league on various committees.
"They obviously have a dispute going on, which is always unfortunate. In this case it deals with succession, as opposed to the current management. And Tom Benson is a man of great integrity and a man that is enthusiastic about the NFL, the Saints, New Orleans, and somebody that has demonstrated to me he's got complete control over what he's doing to make sure that organization goes in the right direction."
Although Goodell won't be the ultimate authority in a court of law, his opinion would seem to validate what Saints/Pelicans officials and Benson's attorneys have suggested in recent days -- that they don't believe fellow NFL or NBA owners will stand in the way of Benson's wishes. Team officials and Benson's attorneys have said they don't believe there will be any hurdles among the owners in approving Benson's new succession plan, despite the fact that Gayle Benson is inexperienced as a business owner and faced several lawsuits when she was in the interior design business in the 1980s and 1990s.
It's unclear when league owners will vote to approve Benson's plan. But in order for Gayle Benson to eventually take ownership, she would have to be approved by three-fourths of NFL owners and by the same percentage of NBA owners.
NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt, who used to participate in owners meetings as a top executive with the Green Bay Packers, said, "My sense is that they will support Benson in every way possible, including his wishes with Gayle, unless the allegations of mental incompetence are proven and put the team at some risk.
"I can't say I'm very familiar with the process [of approving a new succession plan], but my thoughts are that the NFL craves stability in ownership," Brandt said. "They would like to look out upon each team and know that each is secure in solid, stable and financially secure hands. This situation obviously is uncomfortable.
"As for vetting, it is always thorough. But the owners all know Gayle from league functions, thus she comes in with that advantage."
One other note when it comes to league matters: A source within the Saints organization said Rita Benson LeBlanc is no longer part of the NFL and NBA committees that she served on, because she was terminated by the Saints and Pelicans. Benson LeBlanc previously chaired the NFL employee benefits committee, among other committees she has served on with both leagues.