Bruce Levenson to Sell Atlanta Hawks Over Racist E-mail

Move comes after Levenson, a noted philanthropist who has donated to organizations including Birthright Israel, wrote an 'inappropriate and offensive' email concerning African American spectators.

Kevin Murphy
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Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson.
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson.Credit: AP
Kevin Murphy

REUTERS - The owner of the Atlanta Hawks announced on Sunday he will sell his controlling interest in the National Basketball Association franchise because of racially insensitive remarks he made, in an echo of a scandal involving the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team.

Hawks owner Bruce Levenson said fans have a right to be angry about an internal email he wrote two years ago about the need to boost arena attendance and how black and white fans differed in what they preferred to see at Hawks’ games.

"In trying to address those issues, I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive," Levenson said in a statement released by the team."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," he added.

His e-mail to team general manager Danny Ferry, which addressed ways to boost the number of season ticket holders, delved into racial makeup of fans at the Hawks arena and suggested that southern white men might not be comfortable in an arena with a high percentage of African American fans.

Levenson's announcement came just over four months after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in an unprecedented move, banned then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league and fined him $2.5 million for making racist remarks.

Sterling had been heard, in taped private comments, imploring a female friend not to associate with black people.

Levenson is a noted philanthropist who has been acknowledged for donating to organizations such as Birthright Israel, the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute. Levenson has supported BBYO, the Jewish-American youth movement says on its website, adding that he also served as the Aleph Godol of Brandeis AZA.

Levenson was also among 100 prominent American Jews who sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April, urging him to “work closely” with Kerry “to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.”

Levenson accompanied his NBA team on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. in April, and took his Holocaust survivor mother-in-law along with him.

He publicly denounced Donald Sterling following the former Los Angeles Clippers owner's scandal, pushed for maximum punishment and a zero-tolerance policy against racism.

The Clippers saga ended last month when former Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer took over as the new owner of the franchise after completing a $2 billion purchase.

Prior to that sale, the Clippers were ranked by business magazine Forbes as the 13th most valuable NBA team with a value of $575 million in January. By contrast, the Hawks ranked 27th among the 30 NBA teams, with a value in January of $425 million and total revenue of $119 million.

Harmful message

NBA Commissioner Silver said in a statement Levenson had notified the league in July of his August 2012 e-mail, and the NBA then launched an independent investigation into the circumstances of the remarks.

"Prior to the completion of the investigation, Mr. Levenson notified me last evening that he had decided to sell his controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks," Silver said.

While he commended Levenson for reporting the e-mail and for cooperating with the league in its investigation, Silver also criticized the remarks themselves as in "stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association."

Levenson, in describing his own remarks, said his words went against his public views on racism, adding that by focusing on race he had sent an unintentional and harmful message that white fans were more valuable than black fans.

He said his e-mail also trivialized fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests in music and having black versus white cheerleaders, and stereotyped their perceptions of one another in suggesting white fans might be afraid of black fans.

"I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true,” Levenson said. "That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA."

Hawks’ CEO Steve Koonin, who will oversee team operations during the sale process, said he would work in partnership with the NBA to ensure "a new ownership team will be put in place that is united and committed to the Atlanta community."

Last season, the Hawks finished eighth in the 15-team Eastern Conference standings with a win-loss record of 38-44 before being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers.

Their attendance record is among the worst in the league: they were ranked 28th in the league for attendance after the 2013-14 season with an average of 14,339 fans per game.

As the St. Louis Hawks, the team won their only NBA Championship title in 1958, along with four Western Conference titles between 1957 and 1961.

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