For the second time this year, the owner of a professional basketball team will sell his controlling interest of a franchise after his racially insensitive views were made public.
Bruce Levenson, who has led the ownership group of the Atlanta Hawks since 2004, informed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Saturday that he intended to sell the team, effectively cutting short a league investigation into an email that Levenson sent two years ago to fellow Hawks executives detailing his thoughts on how the team could attract more white fans.
On Sunday, when the issue came to light, the Hawks released the full text of the August 2012 email, in which Levenson speculated that the team’s black fans had “scared away the whites’’ and that there were “not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.’’
“I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority,’’ Levenson said in his email, pointing out that he had earlier told the executive team that he wanted “some white cheerleaders’’ and “music familiar to a 40 year old white guy,’’ and that he thought “the kiss cam is too black.’’
The situation is another embarrassment for the NBA, which is trying to move beyond its protracted conflict with Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers this summer after the emergence of an audio recording in which he made disparaging remarks about blacks. It has made vivid again the outlines of racial division that exist in the NBA — particularly among its owners, who are overwhelmingly white, and its players, a majority of whom are black — even as the league has distinguished itself as a leader among American professional sports in confronting diversity issues. That a racial issue came to the fore in Atlanta, long been seen as a center of black culture, is particularly striking.
It was Levenson himself, according to the NBA, who made the league aware of the existence of the email two months ago — a fact that raised more questions than it answered as the situation became public on Sunday. It was not clear what motivated Levenson to self-report, although the disclosure apparently came around the time 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 NBA owners.
David B. Anders of the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz was leading the NBA’s investigation of Levenson, and had the process run its course, Levenson would almost certainly have faced discipline from the league.
Levenson’s email was sent on the night of Aug. 25, 2012, to Danny Ferry, the team’s general manager, and Ed Peskowitz and Todd Foreman, two members of his ownership group. While commenting on various aspects of team business, Levenson included a long passage linking the team’s struggles to sell season ticket packages to its inability to attract white fans and corporations. In bullet points, he observed that 70 percent of the crowd seemed to be black, that the cheerleaders were black, that music played at the arena and at postgame concerts was hip-hop or gospel, and that “there are few fathers and sons at the games.’’ He also noted that the racial makeup at Hawks games did not match other arenas around the league.
It was a contrite Levenson who issued a statement Sunday recanting the sentiments expressed in that email.
“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be,’’ he said. “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.’’
Silver, the commissioner, responded in a statement, “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.’’
Those principles were tested earlier this year when the NBA banned Sterling from basketball, fined him $2.5 million and eventually worked with the other owners to force him to sell the Clippers for $2 billion. Sterling is pursuing an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA.
Bobby Samini, one of Sterling’s lawyers, declined to say Sunday whether he knew of Levenson’s email before it became public, but he was skeptical that Levenson had come forward of his own volition.
“I can’t imagine there’s any shred of truth to that,’’ Samini said. “Adam Silver has established a precedent and the precedent is this: If you have any information that’s damaging to an NBA team, it’s worth something. It’s probably part of some shakedown scheme.’’
The NBA took issue with suggestions that Levenson was coerced in any way. “Any claim that Mr. Levenson didn’t self-report his email is categorically false,’’ Michael Bass, a league spokesman, said.
Despite Levenson’s protestations and changing demographics in which Atlanta’s white population has grown in recent years, the Hawks have long had a bond with Atlanta’s black residents, who make up 54 percent of the city’s population, as reported in recent census figures. According to Stan Kasten, the president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who spent 27 years as an executive with the Hawks, there is a strong connection between the civil rights movement, of which Atlanta is at the heart, and the city’s sports teams.
In the mid-1990s, when Ted Turner, the team’s owner at the time, wanted to build a new arena, he chose to build downtown on the site of the old Omni arena rather than in the suburbs.
“It’s no accident that the arena is where the arena is,’’ said Kasten, who left the Hawks in 2004. “There was a lot of examination of should this arena go to the suburbs, and you can make whatever conclusion you want about the economics of that. But Ted said, ‘No. I want it in the heart of downtown.’ He wanted it to remain accessible to less affluent fans.’’
Still, after making the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, the Hawks have struggled at the gate. They were ranked 28th in home attendance last season, ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks. In January, Forbes valued the Hawks franchise at $425 million.
The Atlanta area has long been burdened with the reputation of a bandwagon sports region, populated to an increasing degree by transients disinclined to support its professional teams through thick and thin. The only constant is University of Georgia football in Athens, 75 miles northeast of the city center, which is backed almost unwaveringly.
The Hawks’ popularity peaked in the 1980s when the team’s focal point was the Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. They became less fashionable in the early ‘90s when Wilkins was traded and the Braves, who themselves are moving to the Cobb County suburbs, began a remarkable run of postseason baseball appearances. Much of the locals’ attention has shifted recently to the Falcons of the NFL, whose string of five consecutive winning records (which included four playoff berths) ended last season. The Falcons, with one of the largest African-American fan bases, has sold out 95 of its last home 97 games.
“I think it’s the toughest market in the United States,’’ said Bill Sutton, a professor of sports business at the University of South Florida. “It’s a transplant market. It’s an SEC market. It’s a market that hasn’t latched onto their sports. It’s a team I would have already expected to be up for sale.’’