Every family has their fair share of family feuds but some have more on the line than others, especially when it comes to the NFL. A family who owns an NFL team can experience many rivalries, competitions, and hardships.
Take for example the Louisiana NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, who held experienced very little ownership drama until Tom Benson remarried. Tom Benson was the owner of the NFL Saints and the NBA Pelicans, along with a variety of local enterprises, before his passing in March of 2018. The feud between the family members began when Benson remarried to a woman named Gayle in 2004. Benson’s children were not thrilled about the marriage and never seemed to take a liking to this new woman. During the Saints and Falcons game late into the 2014 season Benson’s daughter, Rita LeBlanc, began to have a fiery dispute that became an actual physical altercation. Rita grabbed Gayle by the shoulders and began shaking her profusely while Tom looked away in disgust.
Almost a week later Tom wrote a letter to his three children: Renee, Ryan, and Rita, and expressed that they had let him down by not supporting his decision to remarry and made life within the family an unpleasant experience. In one part of his letter he said, “During the 80 years of my life, I have built a rather large estate, which was intended to mainly be for you all as my family. Suddenly after I remarried you all became offensive and did not act in an appropriate manner and even had arguments among yourselves which created a very unpleasant family situation which I will not stand for.”
Benson expressly stated that he originally would leave the empire he built, including the professional sports teams, to his three children but due to the numerous feuds, he has decided otherwise. Originally his daughter, Rita, was being groomed to take over as the majority owner. Rita had joined the Saints full-time in 2001 and by 2005 she was named Executive Vice President of the Louisiana Saints.
After the outrageous dispute between his children and wife, Gayle, all of his plans concerning who would take over his beloved empire changed. Benson adjusted his will on July 27, 2015 in which part of it stated, “I specifically provide that Renee Benson, Rita LeBlanc, Ryan LeBlanc, and all of their descendants shall have no interest in my succession whatsoever, and no legacy or other inheritance or benefit of any kind shall be paid to any of them under this will or otherwise.” In the new will, he named Mrs. Gayle Benson as the sole beneficiary.
Tom Benson’s children attempted to file a petition in the Civil District Court in New Orleans and claimed that their father was mentally unfit to make the decision but they did not win the case. Rita decided to take it a step further by posting an ad in a newspaper asking the New Orleans’ citizens to “pray for the reunification of our family.” Though Rita attempted to continue the fight back, she made no progress and ultimately Gayle Benson gained ownership of both the NFL and the NBA team after Tom’s passing.
This is not the first family feud in the history of the National Football League, and it’s frankly quite shocking how frequently this type of debate occurs. Family disputes have become a major headache for the NFL and its teams.
“Trust me, the same way the public talks about head injuries or Colin Kaepernick, [the league office] talks about these ownership issues. It can be hugely destabilizing,” said a former NFL executive.
Another example of this type of family dispute occurred in the 1990s with Eddie DeBartolo Jr. who owned the San Francisco 49ers. DeBartolo was involved in a gambling extortion scandal in which ultimately plead guilty in a court of law. Denise DeBartolo York, his sister, also took a hit from the scandal which resulted in her and her brother countersuing each other and bringing to light another family dispute. Today, Denise’s son, Jed York, is the current CEO and effective Owner of the team.
“The reality is that in order to have a healthy and smooth-running organization, what you really need to do is build a healthy, functioning family,” says Joe Astrachan, “That’s true whether it’s a family restaurant or a football team.”
Joe Astrachan consults for multiple family businesses as well as Fortune 500 firms. Astrachan served as an advisor to various NFL team owners and encouraged them to find stability within their feuding families: “I would be providing educational quasi-consultative services to the offspring of these families—regardless of whether or not the patriarch thought it was too intrusive.”
Jackie, I no longer consult, I serve on the boards of 9 businesses currently. I have never worked for an NFL family though I have known several. That quote was from a recent SI article and it was my unsolicited advice to the League itself, not to any specific owning family.