Another NBA owner gets in trouble for a racist email

It hasn’t been a month since Donald Sterling sold the L.A. Clippers, and already CNN reports another NBA owner is selling off his interest in a team, following the exposure of a conversation with ugly racial overtones.  In this case, Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson made his comments in an email to other owners and the team general manager, rather than a rambling audio-taped phone conversation.  The email was written two years ago, resurfacing during an investigation conducted by an outside law firm the Hawks hired to “review the organization from top to bottom,” following a vaguely described “racial comment” made by general manager Danny Ferry in a June conference call.

Later in the article, it is said that Levenson himself dug up a copy of the controversial email and gave it to the NBA, rather than waiting for investigators to stumble across it.  It seems a bit odd that nobody on the receiving end of this controversial email thought to mention it sooner.  As CNN observes, Levenson was outspokenly critical of Donald Sterling back when that story was dominating the news:

Discussing Sterling’s reluctance to sell the team after the scandal broke, Levenson said in May that, as a fellow team owner, he couldn’t be partners with someone who holds those types of views.

“I think I speak for all of my partners when I say we were all deeply offended. We all quickly spoke out against the words we heard on that tape,” Levenson said.

And yet, a month later Danny Ferry said whatever got this audit of the team for racial insensitivity under way, and then Levenson remembered he once wrote an email in which he theorized that the high percentage of black fans at Hawks games “scared away the whites, and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base?”  That seems like the sort of thing that should have been on the team leadership’s mind very early in the Sterling saga.

It’s a long email, reproduced by CNN in its entirety.  Basically, Levenson is giving his impressions of the arena, floating theories about why vendor sales have been disappointing.  He mentions unfriendly staff that doesn’t radiate the desired amount of southern hospitality, boring food service options, flat halftime shows, and a general failure to build excitement around the team – “it pisses me off that [fans] will yell louder for a T-shirt than for our players.”  But then he offers the analysis that would ultimately doom his ownership stake in the team:

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.

Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience.

Before we bought the hawks and for those couple years immediately after in an effort to make the arena look full (at the nba’s urging) thousands and thousands of tickets were being giving away, predominantly in the black community, adding to the overwhelming black audience.

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.

Not that his “please don’t get me wrong” disclaimer did him any good, but Levenson is clearly saying he thinks these concerns are foolish; he’s trying to convey what he thinks the demographic he’s trying to attract has been saying.  If he’s incorrect, then isn’t he insulting white fans here, at least as much as he’s insulting black fans?

And if he’s correct, isn’t Levenson’s reputation getting ruined because he offered a blunt description of an attitude he stated he personally disagrees with – to the point of calling it “racist garbage” – but needed to brainstorm ways of working around, for business purposes?  It’s easy to understand the visceral reaction to the way he describes the problems, and the “solutions” he offers, especially since he’s not the world’s most elegant wordsmith.  (And he was hammering out an email to owners and management, not preparing a press release for public consumption.)  If indeed the team was having trouble attracting a more balanced demographic mix to its games (a matter of empirically verifiable or disprovable fact) and if the existing demographic wasn’t generating enough add-on sales revenue (again, a matter of verifiable fact) the Hawks certainly couldn’t work around it by calling white fans a bunch of racists, and challenging them to buy more tickets to prove them wrong.  The Hawks also wouldn’t have much luck by angrily demanding all of its fans, whatever their background, start spending more money at the arena concession stands, or buying more season tickets.  Commerce is persuasion, and persuasion is a delicate task.

There was simply no comfortable way to have the discussion Levenson wanted to have in this email.  If the response is, “well, then he shouldn’t have said anything,” we’re drifting rather far from the ideals of free expression, not to mention the efficient management of an enormous business enterprise.  Levenson’s proposed remedies for the team’s demographic problem are probably what cooked his goose:

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.

Gradually things have changed. 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.

This is obviously a sensitive topic, but sadly i think it is far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low.

And many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income which explains why our f&b and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games sales were nearly triple what they are at hawks games (the extra intermission explains some of that but not all).  [Note: The Thrashers were Atlanta’s hockey team, purchased by a Canadian group and transformed into the Winnipeg Jets.]

Regardless of what time a game starts, we have the latest arriving crowd in the league. It often looks and sounds empty when the team takes the floor.

May I ask an indelicate question?  If Levenson had been concerned about an insufficient number of black fans in the crowd, and suggested adding more black cheerleaders and hip-hop music to attract them, would there be any controversy here?  (He’d probably still be in hot water about his self-described Kiss Cam bitching, I suppose.)

What’s done is done, and nobody seems inclined to defend this email, including Levenson himself.  If nothing else, the team has the same problem it faced if Levenson’s diagnosis of white fan attitudes was correct: a business can’t attract consumers by arguing with them.  If the memo would be found offensive by much of the Hawks’ fan base – quite possibly including many white fans, if they take umbrage at his characterization of them – then the team can’t deal with that fallout by telling everyone to calm down and give Bruce Levenson the benefit of the doubt.  (I can’t tell if there was any great public outrage at this email brewing, since Levenson announced he was selling his interest in the team very quickly after the news broke.)  But it would be nice if we were all clear on exactly what we’re getting outraged about.  And it’s fair enough to marvel that anyone involved in managing these huge sports franchises could be surprised at the backlash they receive from written or recorded comments bound to be perceived as insensitive.

I suspect it would not be difficult to scour the internal correspondence of most large business enterprises and find observations that would be taken as insulting by their customer bases.  No group of people relishes being discussed as a problem to be solved, or a resource to be exploited.  If every such observation pertaining to racial, sexual, or perhaps even age demographics is a ticking political time bomb, we might be in the early stages of a long inquisition.

Update: Writing at Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes the same point about the actual content of Levenson’s controversial email even more forcefully: “Sure, there are assumptions he makes that are cringe-worthy, but the questions about how to attract more white fans were entirely reasonable.”  Abdul-Jabbar judges Levenson’s worse crime to be “misguided white guilt.”