Report: Hawks owner to sell team after racist emails emerge

What is up with NBA team owners?

According to Yahoo! Sports, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson is set to sell the team after racist emails have emerged.


Levenson would be the second owner to lost a franchise due to insensitive remarks. First was Donald Sterling.

Unlike Sterling, Levenson is not going to fight it and sell off the team immediately. Considering the precedent NBA Commissioner Adam Silver handled the Sterling incident, Levenson knows Silver wouldn’t waste time in sanctioning him, thus avoiding a bigger public fiasco. Moreover, he volunteered the emails instead of trying to explain it away like Sterling.

Ironically, Levenson was part of the group that signed off on Sterling to sell the Clippers.

“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 said in the statement. “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 email 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.”

Here is what Silver had to say about the incident.

“Prior to the completion of the investigation, Mr. Levenson notified me [Saturday] evening that he had decided to sell his controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks,” Silver said. “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.”

I am hoping these two incidents are just isolated occurrences and isn’t something bigger among NBA team owners.

So what got Levenson in hot water? Deadspin obtained the e-mail which eventually forced Levenson to sell his stake in the team. It reads in part:

My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around philips yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.

I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while i don’t care what the color of the artist is, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo. i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.

Is this Donald Sterling bad? No. There does not seem to be the animus and outright hatred that existed in Sterling’s comments.

Levenson’s comments seem to come out of primarily business concerns and expanding a still-lagging Hawks attendance — Atlanta has not finished in the top 20 in attendance since 2010 despite making the Playoffs every year since 2008.

That does not make them any less worse. This is a bit of racial social engineering. He wants to reach a new audience because the audience his team appears to be reaching is “not good enough.”

It could also be a statement of his perception of racial tension in the city of Atlanta as well. Maybe his market analysis is right. That would say a ton about the city the Hawks are in and some of the issues they have to work through as a population.

It is a bad look either way. You would hope executives are not telling arena staff to purposefully avoid showing as many black fans on the jumbotron or to create some type of quota for the dance team, etc.

Social engineering might have good intentions, but it is not any better than what Donald Sterling did. He, after all, had business concerns in mind when he allegedly harassed black and minority tenants in his apartment buildings.

So Levenson ultimately did the right thing by turning himself in and agreeing to sell his share of the Hawks.