Bruce Levenson, the managing partner of the Atlanta Hawks, became the second NBA owner in the past five months on Sunday to surrender his franchise over racially insensitive remarks.
In a statement, Levenson announced his intent to sell his controlling stake in the team and apologized for a 2012 e-mail regarding the Hawks’ attendance problems and inability to attract suburban whites that included “inappropriate and offensive” comments.
“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,” Levenson wrote in the e-mail, which also claimed that the Hawks were attracting an “overwhelming black audience” and noted that “there are few fathers and sons at the games.”
Levenson also chose to compare the situation in Atlanta to Washington, which also has a large and affluent African American population. But, Levenson offered no numbers in the e-mail to support the claim. “Even (Washington), D.C., with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience," wrote Levenson, who maintains homes in both Potomac, Md., and Atlanta.
Though Levenson has removed himself from the situation by informing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver of his decision to sell his interest in the franchise, the league seems to have now set a high moral standard with regard to racial discrimination, providing an environment that requires greater sensitivity and care as it relates to private conversations and e-mails.
The league is especially sensitive to issues involving race following the secretly recorded rant that led to the ouster of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Levenson’s letter, which included typos and misspelled words, was addressed to Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and other members of the ownership group. On Sunday, Levenson acknowledged the error of his e-mail and expressed regret in his statement.
“I shared my thoughts on why our efforts to bridge Atlanta’s racial sports divide seemed to be failing,” Levenson said. “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.”
In comments to ESPN on Sunday Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he found the e-mail “reprehensible and offensive.”
“The statements do not represent the city of Atlanta’s history of diversity and inclusion, and we will be clear and deliberate in denouncing and repudiating them,” Reed said to ESPN. “I applaud the NBA’s efforts to enforce a no-tolerance policy of discrimination. As a city, we will continue to stand behind the Atlanta Hawks organization as they work to find new ownership that reflects the values and ideals of a city that is too busy to hate.”
Levenson was among the first NBA owners to make a public comment distancing the league from Sterling’s vitriolic diatribe and pushed for the maximum punishment allowable. “I strongly believe that the league has to have a zero-tolerance policy against racism and discrimination in any form,” Levenson said then.
When Silver issued his lifetime ban of Sterling in late April, outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stated that forcing out the longtime Clippers owner could create a “slippery slope.” Silver met with several NBA owners this week about Levenson’s e-mail and was informed Saturday evening of Levenson’s decision to sell. Silver levied Sterling with a $2.5 million fine in addition to the ban but he commended Levenson for getting out in front of his mistake while calling the e-mail “entirely unacceptable.”
“The views he expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association,” Silver said in a statement. “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.”
Silver added that following the Sterling incident that the league had “re-doubled” its efforts to combat discrimination by making it mandatory for all league and team personnel to receive annual training.
Owners have to adhere to a moral code of conduct and refrain from comments or activities that could damage the integrity of the league. Potential NBA owners undergo an intense vetting process that examines their businesses and character. External and internal groups investigate buyers and they are later approved by the other owners.
The league will assist the Hawks in selling the team. Team chief executive Steve Koonin will oversee team operations in the interim.
Sunday night, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on its Web site that Ferry also would face discipline from the team’s ownership group for comments during a team meeting deemed “offensive and racist.”
The Clippers were sold to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion last month. Though that total is an outlier, franchise values have increased dramatically in recent years, with the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks selling for more than $500 million. The cost certainty that came as the result of the latest collective bargaining agreement has made the properties even more attractive.
Levenson, who sits on the NBA’s board of governors, has led Atlanta Spirit Group, which bought the Hawks, the NHL’s Thrashers and operating rights of Philips Arena in 2005.
A former journalist who worked at the Washington Star, Levenson co-founded the Gaithersburg-based business information company United Communications Group and is a founding shareholder and former board member for the media company TechTarget.
The timing of the announcement has led to several yet-to-be-answered questions about whether Levenson feared having the e-mail released or if he was looking for an excuse to sell – but the NBA is adamant that Levenson voluntarily reported his situation to Silver and the league in July.
Despite making the playoffs for the seventh straight season, the Hawks ranked 28th out of 30 teams in attendance last season. Atlanta has historically had attendance problems that are rooted in suburban sprawl that has resulted in legendary traffic congestion and a population filled with transplants from the Northeast, Midwest and other parts of the South.