Updated at 1:30 p.m. EDT
For the second time this summer, an NBA team will be sold because of insensitive comments by an owner.
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the announcement Sunday morning after an investigation into a 2012 email in which Levenson wrote about how to increase the team’s white fan base. Levenson, in announcing his decision to sell, apologized and said he was “truly embarrassed by my words in that email.”
“Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with low attendance at our games and the need for the Hawks to attract more season ticket holders and corporate sponsors,” Levenson wrote in a statement released by the team. “Over that time, I’ve talked with team executives about the need for the Hawks to build a more diverse fan base that includes more suburban whites, and I shared my thoughts on why our efforts to bridge Atlanta’s racial sports divide seemed to be failing.
“In trying to address those issues, I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive. I trivialized our fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests (i.e. hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e. that white fans might be afraid of our black fans). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.
“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be. I’m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.
“I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true. That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA.
“After much long and difficult contemplation, I have decided that it is in the best interests of the team, the Atlanta community, and the NBA to sell my controlling interest in the Hawks franchise.”
As with the downfall of Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell Los Angeles Clippers because of racist phone conversations, the demise of Levenson was swift. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes that only a few “owners and top executives were aware of investigation. Several started to hear over weekend that an owner was in imminent trouble.” In a later tweet, Wojnarowski reported that “a high-ranking league official w/direct knowledge of Bruce Levenson probe disputes to Yahoo” that the owner self-reported the email. Silver, in his statement, said:
Prior to the completion of the investigation, Mr. Levenson notified me last evening that he had decided to sell his controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks. As Mr. Levenson acknowledged, the views he expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association. He shared with me how truly remorseful he is for using those hurtful words and how apologetic he is to the entire NBA family – fans, players, team employees, business partners and fellow team owners – for having diverted attention away from our game.
I commend Mr. Levenson for self-reporting to the league office, for being fully cooperative with the league and its independent investigator, and for putting the best interests of the Hawks, the Atlanta community, and the NBA first.
We will be working with the Hawks ownership group on the appropriate process for the sale of the team and I have offered our full support to Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who will now oversee all team operations.
The NBA and its teams have long had in place anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in order to facilitate respectful and diverse workplaces. Earlier this summer, the league re-doubled its efforts by, among other things, making it mandatory for all league and team personnel to receive annual training on these issues.
Levenson, a co-owner with controlling interest in the team, concluded in his statement that “I’m truly embarrassed by my words in that e-mail, and I apologize to the members of the Hawks family and all of our fans. To the Hawks family and its fans, you have my deepest gratitude for the past ten years. Working with this team and its extraordinary executives, coaching staff, and players has been one of the highlights of my life. I am proud of our diverse, passionate, and growing legion of Hawks fans, and I will continue to join you in cheering for the best team in the NBA.”
The Hawks posted the email, which was sent to General Manager Danny Ferry and other members of the ownership group, and in it Levenson writes about the team’s struggle to attract fans and sponsors from the white community. The team was pulling in an “overwhelmingly black audience” and he asked the operations staff to make the games more appealing to white fans, writing that “there are few fathers and sons at the games.”
“My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base,” he wrote.