September 7, 2014; Wall Street Journal

There must be a conspiracy among owners of National Basketball Association teams. First there was Donald Sterling making vicious, racist statements that eventually led the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, and the NBA owners to compel him and his wife Shelly to sell the team, leading partly to the capitalization of a new charity to be under Ms. Sterling’s control. Now comes Bruce Levenson, owner of the Atlanta Hawks, who self-reported an offensive email he had written that puts him squarely in the Sterling camp as an NBA owner, employing nearly all black players, voicing racially repugnant ideas—and compelling the NBA to act unless Levenson acts first.

Compared with the repeated blithering racist comments of Sterling, aimed partly at a black woman who appears to have been his paramour, what could Levenson have done that would compare with the racial commentary of the now-former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers? The Wall Street Journal published the full text of the email that Levenson sent on August 25, 2012 to Danny Ferry, the former NBA player who is now the general manager of the Hawks. We offer the following excerpts, which taken together present a disturbing picture of Levenson’s racial thinking (all spelling and typography, errors and all, reproduced from the original email):

  • Suggesting that the Hawks “can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs,” Levenson ticked off the following reasons:
    • “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”
  • “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant (sic) 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 told [our executive team] 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.”
  • “My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.”

Levenson concluded his e-mail, “I am rambling and could probably go on forever.” Well, maybe he couldn’t or won’t go on forever. Having revealed his e-mail, perhaps because it was likely to surface anyhow, Levenson has told the NBA that he intends to sell his majority interest in the Hawks. Levenson and his partners bought the team in 2004 for $208 million, but Forbes this year estimated the team’s value at $425 million. Like the run-up on the value of the Clippers after the Sterling debacle, expect the value of the Hawks to rise, though probably not to the level of the Los Angeles-based Clippers.

When Sterling attacks the race of his girlfriend’s friends or when Levenson complains about the racial composition of the audience in his arena, the owners aren’t simply attacking an abstract notion of a race. They are attacking and demeaning blacks in their communities. That means the 54 percent of the Atlanta population that is black, as counted in the 2010 Census. Although Levenson bemoaned the lack of affluent blacks in Atlanta (compared to Washington, D.C., he said in his email to Ferry), Atlanta is the center of black wealth and power in the South and the home to Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College, an educational consortium that is the bulwark of the city’s affluent black population. Since the election of Maynard Jackson as mayor in 1973, Atlanta has had a number of prominent blacks elected as mayor, including civil rights leader Andrew Young. In 2001, the city elected the first black woman as mayor of a major Southern city, and the current mayor is Kasim Reed. It doesn’t seem like Levenson realized not only how offensive his comments might have been to blacks in general, but more specifically to the black leadership of the fourth largest black-majority city in the United States.

Let’s hope that Commissioner Silver takes the next step in dealing with the racially offensive statements of owners of NBA teams. The Atlanta Hawks Foundation hasn’t been stunningly generous to the metropolitan Atlanta community, distributing grants of $41,953 in 2012 and $74,900 in 2013 according to the foundation’s most recent Form 990. This is the time for Silver to not only guide the Hawks out of Levenson’s biased hands, but to follow on the implicit precedent of the Clippers sale and compel this sale and every one like it that might fall to make amends by establishing a philanthropic entity to serve the community that the thoughtless NBA team owner may have disparaged with his racial commentary. Congratulations, Bruce Levenson, for finding a way of following Donald Sterling into NBA ignominy.—Rick Cohen