So it just hit the news today that businessman Bruce Levenson has voluntarily agreed to sell his ownership stake in the Atlanta Hawks in response to an internal NBA investigation over a racially insensitive email he sent to Hawks staffers in 2012 — which he voluntarily disclosed to the league office himself in July.
Now, I’ve seen and pondered a lot of different theories about this strange story. Some people think that he was being blackmailed by someone who had the email and decided to get in front of it. Some people think he saw how much money Steve Ballmer paid for the LA Clippers and voluntarily blew the whistle on himself in order to facilitate a huge payday.
Regardless of why, it’s clear that Levenson, after having stated emphatically on the record during the Sterling mess that the league needs to have a zero-tolerance policy about racial discrimination, needed to go to avoid being labeled as a hypocrite. He said so himself in his notice to league commissioner Adam Silver.
But there’s something I’m worried about, buried under the avalanche of Sterling comparisons.
I don’t believe his email was racist.
The entire email is publicly available, but the middle section where he speaks most candidly about race and how it factors into game operations.
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.
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.
People who tend to be outraged at this sort of thing tend to seize on a few select phrases that look bad in isolation, but I think it’s important to read the whole section to get a feel for what he’s saying.
To me, he’s making a series of points and conjectures, that all seem to have a reasonable basis in fact:
- The Atlanta Hawks have an unusually low season ticket base
- This is because the Hawks are not attracting middle-aged white guys, who tend to have money
- Our game operations tend to reflect the tastes of our predominantly African-American fan base
- This might be scaring away white people, because many white people in the South are racist
- In order to win them back, the Hawks may need to dial down some of the black culture.
This, to me, is the language of a business owner, trying to find out how to make his product as fiscally successful as possible. I don’t see someone who harbors racial animus for his African-American fanbase. As a matter of fact, he goes out of his way to excoriate the attitudes of whites who think that Philips Arena is unsafe just because it’s a place where thousands of black people regularly congregate (“this is just racist garbage,” he said).
So how in the world is it possible for this to be construed as racism?
As part of his mea culpa email, Levenson was quoted as saying:
By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.
I can understand the rationale behind this admission. It’s possible, if you’re not looking closely, to read into his comments a level of veiled contempt for black people. But he wasn’t saying that black people are lousy fans or bad people.
(Well, okay, he did offer the bewildering theory that perhaps black folks don’t cheer as loud, which is kind of hilarious in and of itself… those blacks… always so quiet and demure!!… said no one, ever — but I digress. )
He said, essentially, that the black people who come to Hawks games generally don’t have enough wealth to adequately support the Atlanta Hawks as a commercial enterprise, at least not to the satisfaction of upper management lamenting the low numbers of season ticket holders.
Somehow in our American society, we have so thoroughly confused and muddled the concept of racism that anything that resembles candid dialogue about race gets unfairly branded with the catch-all term “racist.” And while it’s good that we’ve made some gains in the area of civil rights, white people have generally become so afraid of being branded with the scarlet R that they will retreat and retract from anything race-related that might possibly contain even a whiff of controversy.
This is a problem.
But it’s bad, because for most white people, especially those who occupy any seat of power, the big takeaway will be “don’t talk about race.”
As a matter of fact, many conservative pundits, in print as well as during broadcasts, keep implying over and over that “the real racists” are the ones who keep bringing up race, who keep injecting it into the conversation.
This is idiotic, on par with someone getting upset with their oncologist for “always bringing up cancer,” as though the way to make it go away is by not talking about it. The racial divide is America’s cancer, and the only way we’ll be able to make it better is by being willing to look at it, in detail, and begin to talk about how to combat it. No one fights cancer by crossing their fingers and vowing never to talk about it again. But somehow this has become the de rigueur standard in how to deal with racial issues in contemporary American society.
Frankly, I’d love to sit down with Bruce Levenson and have a dialogue about race. I’d start with something like this:
“Your theory was that ‘there are simply not enough fans to build a significant season ticket base.’ Have you considered why that might be the case?”
I’d ask him if he understands the extent of the wealth gap between black and white America, and how some economic journalists say it’s worse than South Africa during apartheid.
The fact is, if we’re ever going to make headway in dealing with the incredible legacy of racial oppression, discrimination and disenfranchisement that’s tightly weaved into the fabric of our American tapestry, we have to get out a magnifying glass and look at it, up close, in all of its ugly detail. And we’ll need white people with power and influence to talk about it.
But that won’t happen if guys like Bruce Levenson are forced out every time they share an honest opinion about racial issues.
So remember that the next time a racial incident flares up in your school, workplace, or faith institution. People can’t be held accountable for their attitudes about race if they’re never allowed to talk about them.