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Owner Bruce Levenson to sell Hawks after revelation of racist email

Months after advocating for the removal of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling due to racist comments that were caught on tape, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has decided to sell his controlling interest in the team because of a 2012 email in which he expressed racial stereotypes about his fan base.

The NBA announced Sunday that Levenson agreed to sell his stake in the team before a league investigation of the email could be completed. 

"The views he expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association," commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "He shared with me how truly remorseful he is for using those hurtful words and how apologetic he is to the entire NBA family – fans, players, team employees, business partners and fellow team owners – for having diverted attention away from our game."

Levenson, who made his fortune as a co-founder of United Communications Group, had served as Atlanta's representative at NBA Board of Governors meetings since 2004. Hawks COO Steve Koonin will oversee team operations during the sale process.  

The email in question -- which Levenson called "inappropriate and offensive" and which he self-reported to the NBA, according to Silver -- was sent in August 2012. Stemming from his desire for the Hawks to build up a "more diverse fan base that includes more suburban whites," Levenson acknowledged that he leaned on stereotypes to describe groups of fans.

"I trivialized our fans by making clichéd 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). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans," Levenson wrote in a statement. "If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be. I’m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense."

Levenson added that he was "truly embarrassed by my words" and he issued an apology to Hawks employees and fans. 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that the email was uncovered during an internal investigation that was launched after Hawks GM Danny Ferry repeated a racially insensitive comment from a background report about Luol Deng during a meeting with his organization's owners this summer. Yahoo Sports reported Monday that Ferry said of Deng, an unrestricted free agent at the time who was born in the Sudan: "He's a good guy overall. But he's not perfect. He's got some African in him. And I don't say that in a bad way." 

Koonin told the Journal-Constitution that Ferry would be disciplined for repeating the comment, which was originally made by someone outside the Hawks organization.

Levenson's email -- which addressed the in-game experience at Philips arena, among other topics -- has been released by the Hawks. Excerpts of the sensitive material are below.

4. 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.

And many of our black fans don't have the spendable income which explains why our f&b and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games sales were nearly triple what they are at hawks games (the extra intermission explains some of that but not all).

Regardless of what time a game starts, we have the latest arriving crowd in the league. It often looks and sounds empty when the team takes the floor.


Our player intro is flat. We manufacture a lot of noise but because of the late arriving crowd and the fact that a lot of blacks dont seem to go as crazy cheering (another one of my theories) as whites, it is not great. Even when we have just returned from winnng four straight on the road, i am one of the few people in the arena standing and cheering when our team takes the floor. Bob has kicked around ideas like having the starters coming down aisles rather than off the bench during intros. Sounds cool but may highlight all the empty seats at the start of games.

Back in April, Levenson publicly stated that he would support an attempt by Silver and the NBA to oust Sterling, telling Atlanta radio station 92.9 FM that the league needed to have a "zero-tolerance policy against racism and discrimination in any form." 

The Hawks have struggled from an attendance perspective despite making the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons. Atlanta ranked No. 28 in home attendance last season -- beating only the Sixers and Bucks, the two worst teams in the league. The Hawks have not ranked among the NBA's top 15 teams in home attendance at any point in the last 10 years. Forbes ranked the Hawks No. 27 in its latest franchise valuations, pegging the franchise's value at $425 million. 

In 2011, Levenson attempted to sell the Hawks to California businessman Alex Meruelo, but the deal ultimately fell through.