Hawks owner Bruce Levenson to sell team, apologizes for racial email

Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson cheers from the stands during a home game against the Indiana Pacers on April 26.
Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson cheers from the stands during a home game against the Indiana Pacers on April 26.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson has decided to sell his stake in the team amid an NBA investigation into an “inappropriate and offensive” email he wrote in 2012 about black fans, team and league officials announced Sunday.

Hawks Chief Executive Steve Koonin is to oversee team operations during the transition, officials said.

Levenson apologized for the August 2012 email, in which he discussed how to get more people -- particularly white men and corporations -- to buy season tickets, and theorized that they might be afraid of the games’ black attendees.


In a statement Sunday, he called the email “inflammatory nonsense.”

“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),” he said. “By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.”

Levenson reported his email to the league in July, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement, noting that this summer, the NBA made annual training on anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies mandatory for all league and team personnel.

Koonin said in a statement that Levenson’s email was “completely unacceptable and does not reflect the principles and values of the Hawks organization.”

This isn’t the first time this year an NBA team owner has faced trouble concerning racial comments. Remarks about blacks made by Donald Sterling, then owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, led the league to ban Sterling for life from any association with the team. He was forced to sell the franchise but is still entangled in lawsuits surrounding the matter.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network applauded Sunday’s news. The civil rights activist released a statement urging Silver “to continue vetting all owners” and “to deal with lack of minority ownership in the NBA as these franchises become available.”

Levenson, along with Michael Gearon Jr., leads a partnership that bought the Hawks from Time Warner in 2004. In 2011 the group planned to sell control of the Hawks to California businessman Alex Meruelo, but the deal fell through.

Koonin, formerly a senior executive at Turner Broadcasting, was named CEO of the Hawks last April.

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