Talking Trash

Racism or Exit Strategy for Atlanta Hawks Owner Bruce Levenson?

Was Bruce Levenson, the co-owner of the floundering NBA team, suffering a bout of conscience when he ‘self-reported’ his own racist email—or was it all just business?

Dave Tulis/AP

According to multiple sources, Bruce Levenson, who partially owns the Atlanta Hawks, will sell his share of the team after self-reporting a racially loaded email rife with negative stereotypes about both his African-American and Caucasian fanbase in 2012 that was sent to General Manager Danny Ferry and the team’s ownership group.

From the NBA’s official statement:

“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 email in question was released by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday morning, and it’s pretty damning.

Shortly upon taking ownership of the franchise, Levenson began examining why the Hawks have suffered from chronically poor attendance and a general lack of interest, even though the team has made the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, twice advancing to the second round.

“One day a light bulb went off. when digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league,” he wrote. “When i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders.” [all quotes sic]

He comes to the conclusion that, “The black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.” While Levenson is vague as to whether he wants to boot African-American fans in the arena in favor of whites or just up the latter’s overall percentage by filling empty seats, the overall thrust is that white fans in the greater Atlanta region are “uncomfortable” in situations where they are in the minority, whether that’s at the games themselves or in bars near Philips Arena.

Why might that be the case? Levenson lists the preponderance of hip-hop music that’s played during the games and in arena concerts, and a largely African-American cheerleading squad. He also links the racial composition of the fans to his anecdotal assessment that there are fewer fathers and sons in attendance.

It is pretty clear Levenson is just spitballing here, or “rambling” as he writes as the email’s conclusion. There aren’t any ideas for rectifying this so-called “problem,” other than more white cheerleaders, and for “the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo.” Additionally, he doesn’t seem to like it when certain people smooch, “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.”

He also revives the racist trope about African Americans and lateness, complaining that, “We manufacture a lot of noise but because of the late arriving crowd and the fact that a lot of blacks dont seem to go as crazy cheering (another one of my theories) as whites.”

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The thing is, Levenson also makes it entirely clear that he’s in no way validating this behavior on the part of white non-attendees. “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,” Levenson wrote. “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.”

So according to Levenson, despite whatever progress that has been made in this country, there are still tons of old prejudices firmly in place. I think that’s a statement that most people would agree with. The question is, with regards to the demographic that he was courting, is he right? Are white Hawks fans less likely to attend if the bulk of the fans are black? I emailed Robby Kalland, who previously covered the Hawks for three years with Score Atlanta, SB Nation, and

“Levenson isn't wrong with what he said. He made some poor choices of words and, to me, comes off as out of touch more than racist...The Braves are moving out of downtown Atlanta to go to affluent Cobb County to make the wealthy white fans more willing to go to games.”

Furthermore, Levenson’s strategy is probably one that’s been espoused by many other pro sports executives—though they’re probably wise enough not to say it via email—specifically in NBA front offices. Throughout the league’s history, it’s made efforts to court or make the game more palatable to white fans, including the infamous dress code that was installed in 2005, which was intended to curb the perception that it was becoming “too black,” or “thuggish,” under the racist assumption that hip-hop and crime go hand in hand.

Speaking of which, this is very likely an example of what Donald Sterling was referring to when he claimed that the league was rife with prejudicial behavior that’d make his own bigoted dithering pale in comparison. (No, this is not worse than what Sterling said.)

His lawsuit, by the way, is still going forward, and as Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst, tweeted, “Bruce Levenson's email is a reminder that if Donald Sterling v. NBA advances to pretrial discovery, Sterling could cause NBA major problems.”

It’s also why the other 29 owners didn’t want to have to go on the record as voting to evict Sterling, with Mark Cuban in particular warning about a “slippery slope” that looks a lot like the water park ride that’s going to send Levenson shooting out the door.

Meanwhile, there are still some gaping holes in this story. According to Kalland, Levenson’s been looking to unload his shares for a while. “After a failed attempt to sell the team in 2011, the Spirit Group has reaffirmed their commitment and has invested in the team more than they had previously, he said. “However, after seeing why the Bucks and Clippers fetched on the market this year, I can’t help but think he saw an opportunity to get out without the backlash of bailing on the team.”

Which, yes. The Hawks will fetch a pretty penny and it’s not out of the question to wonder whether he wanted to capitalize on the sports franchise bubble. If that’s the case, why did he feel the need to make the email public? Whether or not he actually did confess unprompted remains in doubt. Adrian Wojnarowski, of Yahoo! Sports, also reported that “a high-ranking league official with direct knowledge of the probe disputed that Levenson simply self-reported the email to the NBA.”

For the moment, the NBA is sticking to its guns.

If the email was about to be leaked by someone who wasn’t Bruce Levenson, then Sunday morning’s revelation makes a lot more sense. Levenson would be getting ahead of the story and have the opportunity to throw himself on his sword and say, “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.”

That’s nice, but I don’t know if the team’s other owners would agree. Publicly, yes, but in the end, their primary concern is going to be getting the Hawks out of the red, regardless of what unpleasantries that entails.