Toeing the Line Between Racist and Race-Savvy: A Post-Sterling Scandal Hits the NBA with Bruce Levenson’s Email By Michael Pepper

Toeing the Line Between Racist and Race-Savvy: A Post-Sterling Scandal Hits the NBA with Bruce Levenson’s Email

By Michael Pepper

            On the morning of September 7, 2014, Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that yet another NBA owner was going down for racist comments.[1] In July, 2014, Bruce Levenson, majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks, voluntarily revealed to NBA investigators an email he sent in 2012 that contained racist comments about his fan base.[2] This revelation occurred during the NBA’s investigation of the Donald Sterling scandal.[3] In the email, Levenson discusses his observations of the Hawks in-game fan base and ideas to increase ticket sales and diverse attendance.[4] Levenson says that the audience is predominately black and that arena practices are targeted towards black people, which in turn hurts ticket sales.[5] Notable quotes include: “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,” and, “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.”[6] Levenson will sell his controlling interest in the team because of the email.[7]

            Obviously, another racist scandal in the wake of the Donald Sterling fiasco is the last thing the NBA needs. However, the similarities, differences, and proximity to the Sterling comments compel some observations and concerns. First, it is likely that the language of Levenson’s email will not lead it to be considered as offensive as the recorded rant of Sterling. Observations of the Hawks’ fan base, written as almost matters of fact, are likely not as enraging as Sterling’s words of “walking with black people” in “lousy f**ing Instagrams.”[8] Second, the contexts of the two owners’ statements are totally different. Sterling’s rant was recorded in private and served no other purpose for Sterling other than to express his racist distaste with his girlfriend associating herself with black people.[9] Levenson’s email, on the other hand, was sent to promote diversity in attendance.[10] Obviously, knowledge of your target market is key to success in business and Levenson could be seen as doing nothing more than noting the demographics of his market and making suggestions on how to expand the Hawks’ reach. Thirdly, Levenson’s revelation and pending sale comes just a month after the Los Angeles Clippers were sold for a record $2 billion.[11] Many are already suggesting that Levenson’s voluntary revelation is a ploy on his part to cash in on the value of scandal and sell high.

            Maybe if the Sterling scandal never happened, Levenson would not have revealed his email (by the way, Levenson publicly supported the forced ouster of Sterling).[12] Maybe without Sterling fresh in the public’s mind there would not be any consideration of whether Levenson’s statements are really that bad. Yet, here Levenson is, facing public scrutiny for racism just months after his contemporary shocked the world. No matter how offensive or inoffensive you find his comments, it should be downright maddening to NBA fans and Americans everywhere that two owners left a league of which 76.3% is comprised of black athletes for reasons relating to race.[13]

            Beyond that, the frustration with the Levenson situation grows more complicated. The history of civil rights in the United States illuminates a tension between being “colorblind” and taking race-conscious measures.[14] Responses typically find themselves in one of these camps as well.[15] There are two general propositions: Levenson was a savvy owner by being aware of the disparities in wealth between blacks and whites, or, 2) Levenson is racist for stereotyping black people.[16]  Regarding the first idea, Levenson’s comments, rather than being Sterling-esque or blatantly offensive to minorities, are race-conscious comments related to the state of his business. It would be naïve to assume that no other high-profile businessmen and women tailor their business to attract different racial demographics. Some might suggest it would also be naïve to not realize that Levenson is correct in suggesting that the black population of Atlanta could not support a profitable season ticket base.[17] The estimated median income for black households in Atlanta is $40,550 a year.[18] Assuming the observations Levenson discussed in his email to be true, it would be a valuable business move to try and bring in more white people to Hawks games.

            The second general response that Levenson’s comments are blatantly racist finds none of the preceding suggestions persuasive for multiple reasons. First, one can be race-savvy in making business decisions without assuming that black people scare off white people. The suggestion that a wealthy white NBA fan would not buy tickets just because they play hip-hop inside the arena or a black fan takes a half-court shot during halftime is so blatantly stereotypical and offensive that any business evidence cannot justify it. Second, Levenson assumes that the black fans are the problem, although he could make the opposite point: what is wrong with the white fans? State Senator Vincent Fort from Atlanta takes this position, and additionally says, “It is clear that [the email] was written by a guy imprisoned by his white male privilege.”[19] Third, for a leader to put the blame on black fans for his poor attendance, and do so in so much depth, reveals how quick he is to revert to racial stereotypes, rather than blame the attendance on any of the other factors that contribute to the relatively lacking NBA fervor in the south in general. If you’re an NBA team in the southeast, unless your team can contend for the championship or boast LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, you’re going to face an uphill battle in attendance for a multitude of reasons.[20] Finally, Levenson himself admits that the statements were “inappropriate and offensive” and “inflammatory nonsense,” which he revealed in response to the idea that “the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism.”[21] The Atlanta community seems to agree, as the Mayor said, “we will be clear and deliberate in denouncing and repudiating [the statements].”[22] The argument that Levenson is saying all the right things just to drive up the cost of his franchise after seeing Sterling’s go for $2 billion is possibly nonsensical because there is no way that a voluntary revelation of arguably not-as-bad-as-Sterling comments can compare with the recording that forced Sterling out.

            Maybe Levenson’s mindset is shared by many business owners of all races and relevant to the progress of growing a fan base. But maybe, as civil rights leader Charles Steele said, “This type of mindset is irrelative to the progress to which we are embarking on.”[23] The question that begs answering as public reaction grows in the near future is: which is more important?

[1] Adrian Wojnarowski (Sept. 7, 2014, 8:20 AM), https://twitter.com/WojYahooNBA/status/508635959705886720.

[2] Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Statement Regarding Atlanta Hawks Owner Bruce Levenson, (Sept. 7, 2014, 8:21 AM), https://twitter.com/NBA/status/508636146146889728.

[3] Adi Joseph, Bruce Levenson Will Sell Atlanta Hawks After Releasing Racist E-Mail, USA TODAY Sports (Sept. 7, 2014), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/hawks/2014/09/07/bruce-levenson-racist-email-atlanta-owner-sell-team/15241591/.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Kevin Conlon, NBA Team Owner in Hot Water Over Racist Comments Attributed to Him, CNN (April 27, 2014), http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/26/us/nba-team-owner-alleged-racist-remarks/.

[9] Id.

[10] Joseph, supra.

[11] Maury Brown, $2 Billion Sale Of Los Angeles Clippers To Steve Ballmer Now Official, Forbes (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2014/08/12/2-billion-sale-of-los-angeles-clippers-to-steve-ballmer-now-official/.

[12] Adi Joseph, Hawks Owner Bruce Levenson Would Approve Donald Sterling Ouster, USA TODAY Sports (April 29, 2014), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/clippers/2014/04/28/owners-vote-possibility-donald-sterling-out-los-angeles/8441375/.

[13] Richard Lapchick, The 2013 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (June 25, 2013), http://www.tidesport.org/RGRC/2013/2013_NBA_RGRC.pdf.

[14] See, e.g., Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (2d ed. 2006).

[15] Beth Sawicki, NBA, Reed React To Levenson’s Decision To Sell Hawks, 11Alive (Sept. 7, 2014), http://www.11alive.com/story/sports/nba/atlanta-hawks/2014/09/07/levenson-reactions/15247477/.

[16] See id.

[17] Joseph, Bruce Levenson Will Sell, supra.

[18] Black Demographics, http://blackdemographics.com/cities-2/atlanta/.

[19] Michael Kanell and Ernie Suggs, Atlanta Leaders React To Hawks Owner’s Exit Over Email, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Sept. 7. 2014), http://www.ajc.com/news/news/breaking-news/atlanta-leaders-react-to-hawks-owners-exit-over-em/nhHjN/.

[20] See http://espn.go.com/nba/attendance (Hawks, Hornets, Magic, Pelicans, Heat).

[21] Bruce Levenson, Hawks Owner Bruce Levenson Statement Regarding Team Sale, Atlanta Hawks (Sept. 7, 2014), http://www.nba.com/hawks/hawks-owner-bruce-levenson-statement-regarding-team-sale.

[22] Sawicki, supra.

[23] Karnell, supra.

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