- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Tom Benson, the wealthy owner of the Saints, has his tin cup out while money and relief workers pour into devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.

If he has a heart, it is made of stone.

Benson reportedly is entertaining the notion of moving the Saints to San Antonio or Los Angeles on a permanent basis, the team’s vice president indicated to a television station in New Orleans.

Arnold Fielkow told WDSU-TV that Benson is maneuvering to strike a deal with the highest bidder and does not care how he is perceived in New Orleans, Louisiana and nationally.

Benson apparently does not care if he goes down in sports history as one of the most reviled owners ever, because that is how it will be.

To even think of abandoning a city in its hour of greatest need is contemptible, and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue undoubtedly will make that clear to Benson in their discussions this week, if he hasn’t already.

That Benson has elected not to quell the increasing speculation is in itself revealing.

He finally broke his silence on the topic of where the Saints should play this season yesterday, casting a nod to Baton Rouge, La., “to the extent circumstances allow.”

The Saints are not just a car dealership looking to move to another lot. The Saints are one of the most identifiable symbols of New Orleans. Its citizenry has an emotional investment in the team. A special bond exists between municipalities and teams, which owners often ignore or trivialize in their quest to seek a better deal elsewhere.

You could ask Robert Irsay, who forever was tarred with his moving of the Baltimore Colts under the cover of darkness.

Baltimore, though, hardly was a city awash in despair and grief as the Mayflower vans pulled up to the Colts’ compound. New Orleans is all about hurt now after being knocked on its backside by Mother Nature. It is dazed, out of it, in the clutches of misery and uncertainty.

You see horror. The unfeeling owner of the city’s NFL team sees an opportunity.

“This is like pouring salt into the wound,” a state official told the Times-Picayune.

Benson has every right to be concerned about the long-term viability of New Orleans and how it could have a negative impact on the Saints. He expressed these concerns long before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. And there is no secret about his affinity for San Antonio, where he made his first fortune as an automobile dealer.

But now is not the time to be raising anew the economics of the football business — not with thousands presumed dead, not with countless others left homeless, not with so many lives on hold in the Gulf Coast region.

Now is not the time to be seeking the warm embrace of San Antonio or Los Angeles, or any locale willing to play ball with a football owner. Now is not the time to be playing high-finance games with a state that is otherwise preoccupied with matters of far graver importance than a football team.

In an editorial, the Times-Picayune pleaded with Benson to have the Saints play at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge this season and stick to his word.

“[Benson] has talked in recent months about how much he loves New Orleans, about his desire to stay, and we take him at his word,” the newspaper wrote. “Before Katrina, Saints fans wanted their team to stay. Now they need it to stay.”

In an e-mail stuffed with frustration yesterday, WDSU-TV sportscaster Fletcher Mackel wrote that he asked running back Deuce McAllister if the Saints have played their last game in New Orleans.

To which McAllister replied: “I don’t know. Nothing would surprise me.”

Shame on Benson if he exploits this tragedy to fill his pockets.

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