Ben Cohen and Chris Herring, Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced his intent to sell his controlling interest in the NBA franchise on Sunday after saying he reported to the league an email he wrote in 2012 that discriminated against the team’s predominantly black fan base.
Mr. Levenson, who has owned the team with a group since 2004, informed the league office of the email in July, after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued Donald Sterling a lifetime ban and forced him to sell the Los Angeles Clippers when audio recordings surfaced of racist comments he made in private.
In the email to other team executives, Mr. Levenson blamed the Hawks’ long-standing attendance problems and smaller season-ticket foundation on the team having a base of black fans who “scared away the whites.”
Mr. Levenson apologized for the email on Sunday, calling it inappropriate and offensive, and said he had decided to sell his controlling interest in the team.
“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be,” he said in a statement. The Hawks also published the full contents of his 2012 email online. “I’m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense.”
“The views [Mr. Levenson] expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association,” Mr. Silver said. “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.”
While Mr. Silver commended Mr. Levenson for coming forward with the email and agreed to help along a potential sale, Mr. Levenson’s message was drastically different in tone from Mr. Sterling’s.
Unlike Mr. Sterling’s comments, which led Mr. Silver to swiftly ban the Clippers owner as he forced a sale of the franchise, Mr. Levenson’s were more measured in nature, and focused on how to improve the team’s bottom line when white men seemed reluctant to attend games.
“When digging into why our season ticket base is so small, I was told it is because we can’t get the 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season [tickets] and they are the primary [demographic] for season tickets around the league,” he wrote in a message to other team executives back in August 2012. “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.”
But he continued: “Please don’t get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena 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.” Mr. Levenson, who grew up in Maryland, was clear in separating his views from those who chose not to attend games for that reason, at one point calling that type of thinking “racist garbage.”
[Editor’s Note: The full text of Mr. Levenson’s email is available here.]