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BENSON GETS SUPPORT FROM NFL BROTHERS.

Byline: Billy Witz Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Saints owner Tom Benson has been booed out of Baton Rouge, been declared an enemy of the state in Louisiana, and vilified in the national press for attempting to exploit the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to move his football team out of town.

If Benson doesn't have many friends, he found 32 of them Tuesday - the remaining 31 NFL owners and commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who lined up behind the embattled owner as they began to tackle questions about the Saints' future.

After weeks of rancor between Benson and state officials, Saints' fans and even on occasion Tagliabue, the commissioner was leading the call for compassion and cooperation - by all parties.

``Everyone is doing their best there in unprecedented circumstances,'' Tagliabue said. ``It calls for everybody to pull together without reaching premature judgments about who is a white-hatter or black-hatter. These are very difficult challenges. Everybody needs to be patient.''

Benson appeared to take that message to heart.

After meeting for 90 minutes with the owners' committee on New Orleans, during which he laid out some of the challenges he faces, Benson gently pushed away one of the camera crews from New Orleans that was filming him.

This time he had a smile on his face.

Two weeks ago, in the Saints' first game in Louisiana since the hurricane hit, Benson angrily shoved a cameraman away and got in a shouting match with a fan as he was leaving LSU's Tiger Stadium. The next day, he e-mailed Tagliabue promising never to return to Baton Rouge out of fear for his life.

Since the e-mail was made public, two prominent Louisiana businessmen - one of them endorsed by Louisiana native Terry Bradshaw - have said they'd like to buy the team from Benson.

The 79-year-old Benson, speaking briefly to reporters, reiterated his intention to pass the team down to his granddaughter.

``The team is not for sale,'' Benson said. ``We don't have to talk about that one.''

In the wake of Katrina, Benson had sought to make a permanent move to San Antonio, where the team has set up a temporary home this season. The Saints notified the state that it wanted out of the lease of its headquarters and was considering invoking an act of God clause to free itself from its lease with the Superdome, allowing Benson to leave after this season without repaying $81 million in state subsidies.

At the behest of Tagliabue, an agreement was reached recently to extend the deadlines for exercising that clause until late next year.

``We're working hard, the league's working hard and I'm working hard,'' Benson said. ``Hopefully the day will come when we'll have a lot of football in New Orleans.''

Several owners said Benson's unpopularity there shouldn't be an impediment to the team returning, despite some Saints' fans saying they won't support the team unless it's sold. Some owners noted that all of them are unpopular at one time or another.

``I don't know that Tom's running a popularity contest. He's running a business,'' Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said.

Tagliabue said his most pressing concern is trying to remove as much uncertainty about the Saints' future as quickly as possible. That means determining where they'll play next year - Baton Rouge or San Antonio, with a return to New Orleans a possibility late in the season when repairs to the Superdome could be complete.

``Our priority is on Louisiana,'' Tagliabue said. ``(But) I think it will be very difficult to say every home game will be played in one place.''

He hopes to have the Saints' schedule finalized in January, well ahead of the rest of the league slate, which is announced in April. This would provide more time to market the team's games, and also allow the Saints to let potential free agents know where the team is playing well before the free-agent season begins on March 3.

Since free agents are likely to have reservations about stepping into an unstable situation, Tagliabue has talked with union executive director Gene Upshaw about creating incentives to sign with the Saints, such as the current performance-based bonuses that are designed for low-salaried players.

There will be some sort of financial help from the league's other teams, though no plan has been finalized. There could also be a continued waiver of the blackout policy.

How long they stay in Louisiana is another question, as is whether they would end up in Los Angeles. Those will be tackled down the road.

``It's too early for us to determine any big decisions,'' said Bowlen, a member of the Saints committee. ``We're going to try to help Tom Benson as much as we can. Really, you watch television every day. I'm sure you see what's going on in New Orleans - so do we. We have to wait and see how things develop.''

How long will they wait? ``That's a good question,'' he said.

Billy Witz, (818) 713-3621

billy.witz(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 16, 2005
Words:835
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