The Donald Sterling fiasco, engineered by the release of a racist rant captured on a cellphone, served as far more than the ramblings of a troubled old man. It provided a disturbing snapshot into the minds of NBA owners of teams overwhelmingly made up of Black men.
Many believed Sterling was not an isolated racist oaf — just one who got caught. Well, it turns out that Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson pulled a Donald Sterling before Donald Sterling … only worse, validating the notions spurred by the former Los Angeles Clippers owner’s foolishness.
What Levenson put in an e-mail is worse because it was not an emotional outburst like Sterling’s. Levenson clearly gave his thoughts much consideration, typed them in an e-mail and then distributed them. And Levenson’s comments spoke to an embedded philosophy of foolish racial ideologies — white is right, Black is bad — that show up every day in the workplace, in politics, in the streets, wherever, even as Black players create the owners’ wealth.
Recap, in case you missed it with all the attention the start of the NFL season commands: Levenson, in essence, turned himself in to the NBA regarding an e-mail he sent to team executives in 2012 that was laced with racist remarks in addressing his concerns about Blacks making up 70 percent of Hawks fans at home games. Among the remarks, with typos and all, Levenson wrote:
- “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.”
- “I want some white cheerleaders and while i don’t care what the color of the (halftime) 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.”
All that is far more inflammatory than Sterling’s insidious remarks. Of course, all NBA owners do not feel the same as Levenson wrote. But Sterling, in his madness, did insinuate that he was not the only owner with an issue with race.
And this is also why Levenson’s e-mail is worse: When Sterling’s NBA world started to crumble, Levenson was one of the first league owners to speak out against the 80-year-old easy target, knowing he had similar or worse views.
Levenson, 64 and with a net worth of $500 million, said he will sell controlling interest of the team in the aftermath of this revelation. But questions abound? Why now did Levenson take this action of “self-reporting” to the league two years later? Did he hire an image consultant who advised him to “get in front” of the situation before someone else shared it? What was the Hawks executives’ reaction to his e-mail? Will Hawks players have a similar reaction to playing for a Levenson-owned team as the Clippers did Sterling?
For his part, Levenson said in a statement that he was seeking to deal with attendance issues.
“In trying to address those issues, I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive,” he said. “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,” Levenson continued in the statement. “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.”
It was also nonsense when Levenson wrote that Atlanta does not have an affluent Black community to support the team. The fact that he lives in Washington, D.C., and not in Atlanta could account for his ignorance on that point. Additionally, the color universally thought to matter is green, as in dollars. So why does he care if the bars are 90 percent Black if Blacks are buying drinks?
Sports, more than any other entity, can have a unifying force. Put a white woman next to a Black man who is rooting for the same team, and any “fear” would not be apparent. They would slap high-fives when things go well for their team and complain together when things go wrong. Generally, they’d create a bond, at least for the length of that event.
Clearly, there is no place in the NBA for an owner in any city, but especially in bustling Atlanta, with its 70 percent Black community, spewing venomous rhetoric. Sadly, though, as soon as the stench of Donald Sterling began to fade, Bruce Levenson fouls up the air. And you can only ask: Who’s next?