Gayle Benson

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Gayle Benson's handling of Anthony Davis will begin to define her legacy

Seth Dunlap
February 19, 2019 - 7:56 pm
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If you ever needed proof that there is deep-rooted bias against powerful women involved in running professional sports franchises, look no further than the discussion around Gayle Benson, owner of the Saints and Pelicans, as she navigates the Anthony Davis saga in New Orleans.

Exhibit A: Bill Simmons, the beloved and opinionated face of The Ringer, a website (co-owned by HBO) that covers sports and pop culture.  Full disclosure, I'm a fan and  frequent visitor to The Ringer, and I genuinely like and admire Simmons.  His rant on Anthony Davis, Gayle Benson and the Pelicans during his podcast yesterday, however, can't be left unchecked.

Simmons, among other things, said Benson "has no credentials" to own a sports team, insinuated her marriage was some conspiracy by her to gain ownership of the Saints and Pelicans, and frequently referred to her as "the widow" during his podcast.  Those beyond-the-pale blows got a lot of play locally in the past day.  It's hard to imagine Simmons saying the same thing about a male owner, but if you've heard his commentaries on Jim Dolan (New York Knicks) or Jim Irsay (Indianapolis Colts) perhaps it's not far-fetched.

As unnecessary and across-the-line as Simmons' comments were, they did illuminate a consistently unfair caricature the national media has painted of Benson, one of an woman who is in over her head as the owner of two major professional sports franchises, who either doesn't care about how her NBA team is run or doesn't understand the business of professional basketball. 

Pardon me, but that's hogwash. 

Dolan was an art curator.  Paul Allen, who owned the Portland Trail Blazers until his death last year, was a computer guy.  Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, founded an internet radio company.  Herbert Simon, owner of the Indiana Pacers was a shopping mall developer.  Nearly every NBA owner has a background in something besides basketball, with Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Hornets, the notable exception.  How is Gayle Benson, who was intimately involved in the operation of the Saints and Pelicans when Tom Benson owned the teams, somehow less qualified than all of those men?

One thing the Anthony Davis saga has given to Benson is an opportunity to begin defining her own legacy, one that's separate and distinct from her late husband's.  Benson was reportedly livid after Davis walked out of the Smoothie King Center mid-game last week, and she vented her frustrations, partially, by firing general manager Dell Demps the following morning.  Demps' axing was an obvious necessity for a franchise that's struggled to maintain on court relevance this decade, even with Davis on the roster.  The Pelicans haven't always done the obvious thing, however, and Benson's quick, and decisive, action here could indicate that she's going to chart a much different, and more pragmatic, approach to ownership of this basketball franchise than Tom Benson ever did.

Reports of Benson's eagerness to change the culture inside the Pelicans organization have popped up up with relative frequency in the past year.  Much of the fan base dismissed those reports as soft-ball journalism by reporters who are eager to gain favor with the powerful new leader of the Pelicans and Saints franchises.  Those dismissals are probably a mistake. 

Benson genuinely cares about the Pelicans franchise, and perceptions on how it's run.  She's in attendance at most home games and will often travel with the team to road games.  She's in the process of restructuring the front office, and has every intention of building a solid, competitive NBA franchise.  Gayle Benson seems to truly care about basketball in New Orleans when, at times, Tom Benson seemed more indifferent to the team's success and stability.  

Which is why her response to Anthony Davis' bizarre All Star weekend interviews and press conferences is critical.  Benson must not let Davis' outlandish words and behavior over the past few weeks go unmet with repercussions from the team who employs him.  Davis openly talked about the teams he'd like to play for, while under contract.  He threatened to file a grievance with the player's union if the team didn't play him, then promptly walked out of the arena while a game was in-progress shortly thereafter.   He's using the Lakers, Klutch Sports, LeBron James, and Rich Paul as props to back his petulant behavior, hoping they'll draw the ire of fans and Pelicans ownership while deflecting from the truth, that this was all-along Davis' decision and his orchestrated plan from the get go. 

Gayle Benson can silence her doubters by taking more strong, decisive action that is in the best interests of her team, her other employees, and small-but-growing fan base.  She should inform Anthony Davis that he will no longer play in a Pelicans uniform, citing either conduct detrimental to the team, or injuries that caused him to leave both a Pelicans game and the All Star Game in the past week.  Take any fines the NBA threatens, and if they threaten draft picks then fight back while public perception is on your side.  Don't let bullies in the league offices, or bullies in Los Angeles, or bullies who are currently employed by Pelicans dictate how to run this franchise.  

Taking control of the Anthony Davis soap opera will allow Gayle Benson to begin setting her own legacy, one as a strong, determined, and shrewd owner who is committed to the Pelicans in New Orleans. 

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