After revelation of a racist email, Bruce Levenson plans to sell his Atlanta Hawks. Was he pressured by the NBA? Is the email merely an excuse to make boatloads of money?
"I think you've got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It's a very, very slippery slope." – Mark Cuban, last April.
Were the contents of Bruce Levenson’s email reprehensible?
Should it have cost him his team?
By now you know the story: In the summer of 2012, Levenson, the majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks, fired off an email to Hawks general manager Danny Ferry and two of the team’s minority owners. In the email, which was intended to address legitimate business issues, Levenson made a series of ignorant, racially insensitive remarks.
He connected the team’s financial struggles directly to its largely black fan base, suggesting, in as bizarre a way as possible, that the team should strive to attract a larger white audience by incorporating more white cheerleaders, by playing music that would appeal to “a 40-year old white guy” and by diversifying, of all things, the kiss-cam that scans the crowd between quarters.
In July, Levenson, according to the NBA, handed the email over to league officials. On Sunday, in carefully prepared joint statements, the league and Levenson announced he would sell his stake in the team.
Now, there are a handful of unanswered questions. Did the NBA encourage — or even order — Levenson to sell the team? His decision to do so certainly made the league’s life a little easier. There is no clean way to boot an owner with the stench of racism attached to him, but the orderly way the NBA and Levenson made the announcement, an announcement conveniently dumped into the middle of a day dominated by the start of the NFL season, certainly makes things simpler.
Did Levenson want to sell the team? There is evidence of that, too. In 2011, Levenson thought he had a deal to sell the Hawks to California businessman Alex Meruelo, only to have negotiations fall apart at the 11th hour. The NBA landscape has changed dramatically since then, with sales of the Milwaukee Bucks ($550 million) and Los Angeles Clippers ($2 billion) sending franchise values skyrocketing and the promise of a lucrative new television deal serving as a carrot that has prospective owners tripping over themselves to overbid. A team like the Hawks, which Forbes recently valued at $425 million, could fetch double that.
“I think what happened was he saw how much teams were going for and wanted to make some money,” a rival team executive said. “What he said was wrong but to me it seems like an excuse to sell.”
But what if Levenson didn’t want to sell? Should the NBA have the right to force him to?
Levenson isn’t Donald Sterling. Sterling, the recently deposed Clippers owner, had a documented history of racist, discriminatory behavior well before his rant to a former mistress. Levenson has none. But make no mistake, Levenson's fate is directly connected to Sterling. The NBA reacted swiftly to racist comments made by Sterling, banning him for life and immediately beginning the process that ultimately resulted in Sterling being stripped of his team. Many owners were uncomfortable with such a harsh punishment, most notably Cuban, who worried about setting this kind of precedent for comments made in private. This is an example of why.
If Levenson had resisted selling his stake, things would have undoubtedly become ugly. Some owners would support him, most players would have likely lined up against him and the fan base that Levenson was so dismissive of would have stayed away in droves. Sponsors would flee and the story would pollute the Hawks season, sabotaging it from the start. Levenson, one of Sterling's harshest critics, had to know there was no way he could survive this, that in a post-Sterling world a racially charged email like that was a death sentence for his ownership.
"If you're angry about what I wrote, you should be," Levenson said in a statement. "I'm angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. ... I'm truly embarrassed by my words."
Banishing Sterling was the right thing to do, but the NBA opened Pandora’s Box when it did. One comment, one email, one statement never meant to become public can have catastrophic results. Levenson had an ugly skeleton buried in his closet, a skeleton he had to know would eventually emerge. Across the league, other NBA owners must be asking themselves the same question: Do I?