It turns out Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was right when he worried that NBA owners were creating a “very, very slippery slope” by booting Donald Sterling from the league. This weekend Bruce Levenson, who has owned the Atlanta Hawks since 2004, announced he will sell his controlling interest in the team owing to an email he sent to other Hawks executives in August 2012, in which he theorized that the Hawks’ black fans had “scared away the whites,” and there were “not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.” While Sterling fought the NBA for months, Levenson seems eager to get to the part where he sells the team for a hefty sum — to the point that he reportedly brought the email to the commission’s attention himself.
After the situation came to light on Sunday, the Hawks released the full email (available here). In the message, Levenson shares a revelation he had about why the team was having trouble selling season-ticket sales:
Regarding game ops, i need to start with some background. for the first couple of years we owned the team, i didn’t much focus on game ops. then 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. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games
– we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.
Levenson goes on to explain that he’s not racist, he just thinks the team should do more to cater to “southern whites” who believe that “racist garbage”:
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.
In a statement issued Sunday, Levenson explained his reasons for turning himself in two months ago, saying: “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.” Initially, the NBA launched an independent investigation into the email, but on Saturday Levenson told NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that won’t be necessary, as he’s selling his interest in the franchise.
Levenson even saved the NBA the trouble of crafting a detailed admonishment. In his apology statement, he broke down what he did wrong:
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.
Of course, Silver still condemned Levenson’s remarks as “entirely unacceptable,” but he also praised the Hawks’ owner 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.”
Compared to the Donald Sterling saga, owning up to your racist failings and quickly taking responsibility is a much more dignified way to go, but some doubt that’s really what happened. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports tweeted:
An NBA spokesman quickly dismissed that report, saying, “Any claim that Mr. Levenson did not self-report his email is categorically false.” Regardless, it’s still unclear what motivated Levenson to report the email. The New York Times notes that “the disclosure apparently came around the time that Mr. Sterling said he had hired private investigators to dig up information that would show that his behavior was not out of line with that of other N.B.A. owners.”
And, for what it’s worth, Bobby Samini, one of Sterling’s lawyers, isn’t buying it. “I can’t imagine there’s any shred of truth to that,” Samini told the Times. “Adam Silver has established a precedent and the precedent is this: If you have any information that’s damaging to an N.B.A. team, it’s worth something. It’s probably part of some shakedown scheme.”
If so, it’s not quite as lucrative as the Sterling ordeal. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2 billion, but earlier this year Forbes valued the Hawks at the low, low price $425 million. If you’re a bored former CEO with money to burn, can you really afford not to buy the Hawks?