By Chris Hoenig
Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson is selling his controlling stake in the team after admitting to sending a racist email.
In the email, sent in August 2012, Levenson asked questions and shared his observations about the fan experience at Philips Arena, where the Hawks play their home 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,” Levenson wrote in the email, which the Hawks released publicly on Sunday.
He went on to say that 70 percent of Hawks fans are Black, the team’s cheerleaders are all Black, and that when you combine that with playing hip-hop music during timeouts, it keeps white fans away from the games.
“Then I start looking around at other arenas,” Levenson wrote. “It is completely different.”
In the email, which was sent to the team’s co-owners and General Manager Danny Ferry, Levenson claimed that he had ordered the hiring of white cheerleaders and the playing of music “familiar to a 40-year-old white guy.”
“I have even bitched that the Kiss Cam is too Black,” he wrote.
And in response to concerns from fans that the area around Philips Arena is dangerous, Levenson wrote: “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.”
Levenson reported the email to the league himself back in July, and the NBA ordered an independent investigation. The email had resurfaced after the team hired an Atlanta law firm in June to investigate how a racist remark was included in the scouting report of a player it was looking at.
“I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive,” Levenson said in a statement over the weekend. “I trivialized our fans by making clichd assumptions about their interests (e.g., hip-hop vs. country, white vs. Black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (e.g., 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.”
Levensonwho bought the Hawks in 2004 and has watched them sit in the bottom half of the league in attendance every year sinceclaims that he made the comments as he explored ways to bridge a racial divide between sports fans in the city and to increase attendance. He becomes the third owner to sell his NBA team this yearthe second in the aftermath of racist comments.
Levenson was one of the most outspoken team owners, calling for Sterling to sell the Clippers shortly after the audio tape surfaced.
“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,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.
“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,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. “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 tried to sell the Hawks in 2011, but a reported $300 million deal with California-based developer and pizza-chain owner Alex Meruelo ultimately fell through. If the sale, which would have allowed Levenson to retain a minority ownership in the team, had gone through, Meruelo would have become the first Latino majority owner in the NBA.