Bruce Levenson, owner of the Atlanta Hawks, says he’s going to sell his controlling interest in the franchise after self-reporting an email from 2012 that contained racially-charged comments about the team’s fanbase. Levenson was one of the NBA owners to publicly speak out against Donald Sterling earlier this year.
He issued this statement on Sunday morning:
“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. 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.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin will oversee all team operations and take all organizational reports as we proceed with the sale process.
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.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued his own statement.
“Following Bruce Levenson notifying the league office this July of his August 2012 email, the NBA commenced an independent investigation regarding the circumstances of Mr. Levenson’s comments.
“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.”
The Clippers sold for $2 billion to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer after the NBA banned Sterling for life.
It’s a tricky situation. Levenson’s intent in his email was to explore ways the team could attract more white males, a demographic he felt could help increase the team’s overall season-ticket sales. You can read the full email via USA Today.
But where Levenson’s email became offensive and troubling was when he wrote sentences like, “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,” or “I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.”
Even in the context of trying to attract a more white audience, those comments were offensive and, at best, stereotypical.
However, the fact that Levenson not only reported his own behavior but is also willingly entering the selling process should ensure this situation is far less messy than what transpired in Los Angeles.