Rita Benson LeBlanc is part owner and executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints. She is the granddaughter of Tom Benson, the principal owner of the Saints, who open the new NFL season tonight against the Minnesota Vikings.
LeBlanc, whose grandfather bought the team in 1985, leads the business operations of the Saints, with responsibilities that include overseeing all sales and marketing efforts, the club’s community and youth programs, game-day entertainment and stadium operations. She represents the club at NFL Ownership Meetings, where she chairs the league’s Employee Benefits Committee and serves on the NFL International Committee.
In addition to her responsibilities with the Saints, LeBlanc has taken an active leadership role in tackling the economic, environmental and community challenges that face the New Orleans and Gulf South region through serving on the boards of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region and of GNO Inc., the official economic-development agency serving the 10-parish Greater New Orleans Region. She played a key role in securing the Super Bowl (XLVII) for New Orleans and serves on the executive board of the New Orleans 2013 Super Bowl Host Committee.
Recently LeBlanc served on New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Economic Development Task Force, a group of business leaders that teamed to gather opinions from the public on how city government could help create jobs and facilitate economic development in the city.
How much does faith play in the daily life of the Louisiana Saints?
In America, the Christian faith has always been there, even if there’s been a pullback from religion in general. But certainly in sports where I grew up, it’s still the case, at least with our players. The players always say the Lord’s Prayer before and after games, and we always make sure that Mass or chapel is available to the players on a regular basis. Some of them go to Bible groups, but it kind of shifts with each team because you have players coming and going.
How many Catholics are there on the team?
Not that many, though I think generally many go to chapel, and everyone has a different mental preparation as far as the games go. Of course, as far as my family is concerned, we’re Catholic, and so sometimes we have priests who travel with us or someone local to that city. We’ve met some really interesting people along the way, so it’s nice to have someone fresh from that local community.
New Orleans is a very special place. I think we’re one of the only communities that has four living archbishops [Philip Hannan, Francis Schulte, Alfred Hughes and current Archbishop Gregory Aymond].
[Auxiliary Bishop Dominic] Carmon and Hughes came with us to the Super Bowl, and we had Mass with a few priests who presided as well. It was a very special day. It’s something a whole city community and football team had been hoping for and working towards for 40 years.
You faced a major trial with Hurricane Katrina. How much did faith play a role in getting your community back on the road?
You have to have faith. The hurricane was not as damaging as the man-made disaster of the levies breaking. It touched everyone’s sense of faith. But what’s amazing, having lived through it, is that few cities or communities have ever gone through the same trauma together. Every person had to leave and then make a financial commitment to return because it wasn’t easy. It didn’t matter from what economic background you were; it was financially painful to go back. You had to figure out how to run your business, keep it going, and there just weren’t people there.
The outside world was frustrated that things weren’t improving immediately. But that’s because you’re living in a society that is so intent and demanding with regards to immediacy. But there’s a reality to life that demands patience, and things aren’t about instant gratification or instant answers. Because of the magnitude of what had happened, there was a shortage of manpower, so you had to have faith that people would return. … When you’ve lost everything or all that you hold dear, you realize what it means to possibly lose it, and everything becomes so much more precious. I also think it’s important to be committed to the community. I remember someone coming to the city to do business [after Katrina], and they weren’t committed to it; their family wasn’t committed to it, and it caused friction and it didn’t work. That wasn’t the case with our team, thank goodness, but I have seen that if you’re not committed to your faith and what you’re doing, then things break down, particularly in a community where every moment counted, everything was important.
You gave up your stadium to be refuge for evacuees. Were you involved in that at all?
I wasn’t in the stadium, but I know people in Catholic Charities who were there and helping to take care of people through the storm. It required so much collaboration because we’re the primary tenant of the building and we’ve invested money into it, but it’s owned by the state. … People see it as an emblem of pain but also a shelter, and it did save lives.
When the team was first brought to New Orleans in 1967, there was still segregation. But people still came together for the games … and they all loved each other as Saints fans. So, with all the pain of Katrina, we won the Super Bowl, and we brought the trophy home. We had this victory parade and showed the same faces, unified — black, white, everyone — and far more Hispanics than before because they came up for jobs to help clean, fix and repair houses.
New Orleans has had a history of slaves, but it also has this history of being cosmopolitan, of being different and ever changing. So I’m very proud to be part of that change, and it’s change for good.
A lot of outsiders are inspired to come and are amazed at how strong the private-public partnership is. Faith-based initiatives and volunteer groups are really what is putting our city back together, and that is the American dream. That is also what faith is. It’s been much more than a football team, for certain. My calling, I believe, is to use this [team] as a connector and as a spotlight of what’s happening in the city.
Has faith always played a large part in your family?
When my grandfather first went from Louisiana to Texas, he met an Oblate priest called Father Blackburn and another priest, Father John Sikowski. I thought everyone grew up knowing a lot of priests: The seminary was there; my mother grew up with lots of seminarians around, and so I’m used to it. It’s just ironic it was the Oblates who happened to be there.
New Orleans is a city with a sense of faith, home and a feeling that is very natural and people fall in love with. New Orleans is a very Catholic city, and people are used to seeing the archbishop at the games. When he comes out to the field, he gets just as much acclaim as the players — Archbishop Hannan and all the others. He’s such an amazing person for what he’s achieved in his life. He was there at the Saints’ inception.
They asked the archbishop’s opinion on what he thought about naming the team the Saints, and if he thought it was a negative. He said, “No I think it’s fine, because what you should know is that most saints are martyrs, and so it might get a bit difficult.” And, ironically, it was. We’ve had winning seasons since my grandfather bought the team in 1985. The team was founded in 1967, but until now, had never been to the Super Bowl. I’ve seen sports teams win, but it wasn’t about the winning; it really was about the value of these people working as a team together. And I saw it on their faces, every victory, every loss; it’s been amazing, very special. I hope we can continue, but nothing will ever be like this year. It’s been really powerful.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.