Atlanta Hawks owner stepping aside over racially charged email

Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson looks on during a game against the Washington Wizards in December. Levenson is selling his stake in the team amid an NBA investigation into an "inappropriate and offensive" email he wrote.
(Dave Tulis / Associated Press)

Nearly a month after Donald Sterling was stripped of his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, ending a contentious legal battle sparked by his remarks about blacks, his comments have created fallout in another corner of the National Basketball Assn.

Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson informed the NBA late Saturday he was selling his interest in the team because of an email he sent to team President Danny Ferry in August 2012 that said the crowds at Philips Arena were too heavily African American.

“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,” Levenson wrote.

Levenson, 64, informed the NBA of the email in July during the height of the league’s attempt to remove Sterling as owner of the Clippers.


NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Sunday condemned Levenson’s views in a statement but commended the owner for providing the email and cooperating with the league’s investigation.

Levenson said he was stepping down immediately and will likely avoid any sanctions by the league. He appointed Hawks Chief Executive Steve Koonin to run team operations.

Together with Sterling’s ouster, Levenson’s departure could prompt other owners to review potentially insensitive comments they may have made.

Sterling was recorded by his companion V. Stiviano saying during a private conversation that he was upset she had posted a picture of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram. He told her he did not want her to bring blacks to Clippers games. The NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life.


“I think anybody who thinks they did anything dubious is going through their email files,” said Bill Sutton, a former NBA vice president of team marketing who is director of the Sport and Entertainment Management Program at the University of South Florida. “I don’t think this is an isolated incident.”

Levenson wrote in his email, discussing ways the Hawks might improve attendance, that he noticed the crowds at home games were 70% black, the cheerleaders were black, and the music was hip-hop.

“I want some white cheerleaders and while i [sic] don’t care what the color of the artist is,” Levenson wrote, “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.”

Levenson apologized for his comments Sunday in a statement released by the Hawks, calling them “inappropriate and offensive.”


“I trivialized our fans by making cliched 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),” Levenson said in his statement. “By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.”

Levenson, who has owned the Hawks since 2004, tried to sell the team to Los Angeles businessman Alex Meruelo in 2011 before concerns arose over Meruelo’s ability to pay the proposed price of more than $300 million.

In its most recent estimate, Forbes valued the Hawks at $425 million.

Levenson had been one of the most outspoken critics of Sterling’s comments, calling them “ignorant, offensive and very disturbing.”


“I strongly believe that the league has to have a zero tolerance policy against racism and discrimination in any form,” Levenson said in late April.

Diversity experts wondered if the ouster of another professional sports owner would inhibit discussion on race, even in private settings.

“The question becomes, can people have views that aren’t about diversity and inclusion?” said C. Keith Harrison, interim chair and associate professor at the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. “They can have divergent views, but they can’t be homophobic, racist, sexist. That’s when it becomes problematic.”

Sterling vowed to keep his team, but his bid ended in August when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld the authority of Sterling’s wife and Clippers’ co-owner, Shelly Sterling, to sell it to Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Shelly Sterling had gained control of the Clippers after mental health experts testified that her husband was mentally unfit to run the team.


In June, The Times reported that Sterling had hired four investigative firms to find embarrassing information about NBA executives and owners, though no results have been made public. Bobby Samini, one of Sterling’s attorneys, suggested Sunday that more NBA owners would face similar situations for past comments or emails related to race.

“I know there are more coming,” Samini said. “From our perspective, we don’t really care about the other owners. There’s not a single owner in the NBA who is going to be able to withstand the scrutiny that’s been established. This will end up at the doorstep of Adam Silver sooner or later. I’m sure he’s got some emails he’s written.”

An NBA spokesman declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Sterling is suing the NBA in federal court alleging antitrust violations; the league countersued last month.

Bernie Mullin, who was president and chief executive of the Hawks under Levenson from 2004-08, said the owner’s email was not reflective of the man he knew.


“I had never seen any kind of evidence of discrimination with Bruce,” Mullin said.

Mullin attributed the Hawks’ attendance problems to an arena in a traffic-choked area and a high percentage of transplant residents, among other factors. The team ranked 28th of 30 teams in attendance last season.

The NBA has long been hailed as one of the most progressive professional sports leagues in the United States, getting high marks for its placement of blacks and other minorities into prominent roles. The league was also the first to implement diversity training for management positions, according to Richard Lapchick, whose report on the impact of Sterling’s words was part of the case brought against the former owner. Lapchick is director of the DeVos management program at University of Central Florida.

Lapchick said the revelation that another owner in one of the four major pro sports had made racially insensitive remarks shouldn’t surprise anyone.


“We’re taking about 120 or so owners representing some of the most wealthy people in the country,” Lapchick said. “To think there wouldn’t be some people in that group who had views like Sterling’s or carried stereotypical views on race in America, that would be naive.”

Twitter: @latbbolch

Times staff writer Nathan Fenno and Times researcher Valerie Hood contributed to this story.