Read the email that cost Bruce Levenson his ownership of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. It’s ten times less raw and salacious than Donald Sterling’s racist rant to his mistress. At the same time, it’s ten times worse.
This wasn’t a man allegedly suffering dementia telling his mistress — in the heat of a private jealous rage — not to bring black guys to the game, as Sterling, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, did. In Levenson, you had an owner explaining to the team’s general manager Danny Ferry in a detailed way what steps had already been taken to make the arena experience feel less black in order to attract more white fans.
When the Sterling mess hit the fan, Levenson told a local radio station that he had “zero tolerance for this sort of bigoted racial comment and I’ve conveyed that to [NBA commissioner Adam Silver] and the league.”
Well, when it came to courting ticket-buyers, it turns out Levenson had plenty of tolerance for such attitudes.
Why were season-ticket sales low? “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,” he wrote to Ferry.
Levenson quickly added that talk of the arena being unsafe was “just racist garbage” and “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.”
But, in so many words, business is business. And you know what’s bad for business? According to Levenson: too much hip hop and gospel music at the games, too many black cheerleaders, too many blacks on the kiss cam and too many blacks in the stands.
So how is Levenson better than Sterling? The controlling owner of the Hawks appears to have self-reported the email in question, offered about as strong an apology as possible and is taking responsibility for what he wrote and did by deciding to sell the team without a fight:
…In trying to address those issues [about a relatively small fan base], 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.
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.
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.
After much long and difficult contemplation, I have decided that it is in the best interests of the team, the Atlanta community, and the NBA to sell my controlling interest in the Hawks franchise. …
After listening to his condemnation of Sterling and reading his email to Ferry, it would be easy to dismiss Levenson as a self-righteous hypocrite. But — if the official story turns out to be true — you just as easily could call him self-reflective and honorable. [UPDATE: Looks like the part about Levenson’s “voluntarily” reporting the e-mail is more complicated than his statement suggests. It turns out that the controversial email was turned up by an internal probe conducted by a law firm at the urging of other owners unhappy with a comment made by Ferry during a conference call in June.]
It’s hard to imagine the L.A. branch of the NAACP ever rescheduling that Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for Sterling. But if Levenson keeps up this level of T’shuvah, he might just earn himself another BBYO speech.