If you’re looking for the good news in the wake of the Donald Sterling debacle, it may have come in something of a surprising form. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced today that he would be selling the team because of a racist email he sent in 2012.
At the first moment, all basketball fans’ hearts should sink. I don’t think the NBA could handle another owner causing a team that kind of distraction again. Upon further inspection, though, something very different was happening here.
In the email in question, Levenson sent a communication to his General Manager, Danny Ferry, in which he seemed to be giving something of a “state of affairs” in many important areas of the team’s operations. He began with commending parts of his organization, as well as giving some thoughtful remarks about how to move forward with issues such as food vendors and season tickets. In my reading of the email, I started to like the guy from the beginning of the email.
It was in the fourth section that the issue came up. In it, Levenson diagnoses one of the issues he is facing that most drastically affects his team’s bottom line: season ticket holders. He makes the comment that, more than at most stadiums, the Hawks draw a uniquely African American dominated crowd. He cites “eyeball statistics,” numbers he attempted to guess at based on observation, mentioning 70% African Americans in the crowd, predominantly black cheerleaders, and an overwhelming amount of hip-hop music in the stadium. He then goes on to say that the feeling of overwhelming African American culture in the building may be leading to low numbers of season ticket holders because most season ticket holders are affluent, and there are fewer affluent African Americans in Atlanta than whites.
This is the email that Levenson self-reported as racist and the reason he has no business owning an NBA team. Really, though, business is the reason he is owning an NBA team, and all of his comments were observations in the name of smart business. Upon deep inspection of the email, there is nothing that should have driven Levenson to step away.
Now, that isn’t to say stereotyping and over-generalization isn’t a big issue. These can be incredibly detrimental when assessed in society. The thing is, though, that business and society are very different, and sometimes something that is wrong in society is imperative to running a financially responsible organization.
This case, more than most, needs to call into light the importance of intent. In the case of Sterling, he was a racist who meant to say that blacks were inferior. In the case of Levenson, he even goes so far as to call other antics “racist garbage,” almost feeling bad for making his observations. He was attempting to answer a business question with something that, for all intents and purposes, were ball-parked observations. If he had done a census of fans at his games, he could have made the exact same statements with facts (plus or minus a few digits), rather than slightly skewed information that could be claimed as “opinion”.
You may be wondering where the “good” from the Sterling situation comes into this one. The good is that this is evidence that the NBA learned something. This is evidence that no level of racism will be acceptable. This is evidence that a seemingly good man who made a mistake will own up to it and take responsibility for his actions.
I don’t believe Levenson needs to sell his team. I think he made business-minded statements to a man in his organization to help make more money. I think it is pretty great, though, that he is willing to step down (step down for some big bucks, that is) to state how important it is that we be thoughtful of the way we treat each other and think about racism.
I have two blogs: a sports blog and a “life” blog. The reason this is on the “life” blog rather than the sports one is that racism is an issue that transcends sports. It’s also important that, in a time when issues in sports will bring to the forefront important societal issues, that the public knows about the conversations going on in sports and, in this case, the great moves forward that are being made.