Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson said he will sell his controlling interest in the franchise because of an “inappropriate and offensive” internal e-mail sent two years ago regarding, in part, the lack of white fans at Philips Arena.
Levenson made the abrupt announcement Sunday, months after he self-reported the email to the NBA in July and the team and league commenced an independent investigation into the matter. In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday night, Hawks co-owner and CEO Steve Koonin said other disciplinary action will be taken, including against general manager Danny Ferry.
Levenson sent the email to Ferry, with copies to co-owners Todd Foreman and Ed Peskowitz, on Aug. 25, 2012. In the email, Levenson wrote about the reasons for the poor attendance.
“My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant (sic) season ticket base,” Levenson wrote.
He also cited several other observations about the Philips Arena crowd and the team’s game operations including:
- “(The audience) is 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.”
Levenson added: “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.”
The announcement comes after Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned by the NBA and forced to sell the franchise for recorded racist comments he made in April. Levenson was the one of the first and most vocal owners to react when Sterling’s comments were made public.
Levenson reported his email to the league three months later.
According to Koonin, the Hawks held a meeting in early June to discuss free agency. At that meeting, a player was being discussed and Ferry cited a background report that included an “offensive and racist” remark.
“Instead of editing it, he said the comment,” Koonin said.
Following the meeting, Koonin said members of the Atlanta-based ownership group raised a red flag regarding the comment and said: ‘This is wrong. This should not be said. It’s not appropriate in any world but not a post-(Donald) Sterling world.”
In the wake of the incident, it was decided that there would be an internal investigation conducted by council. The law first of Alston and Bird conducted 19 interviews and examined 24,000 documents. During that search, the Levenson email was discovered, according to Koonin.
“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be,” Levenson said in a statement released by the team Sunday. “I’m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.
“I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true. That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate email to the NBA.”
Koonin will oversee all team operations during the sale process.
According to Koonin, Ferry will be disciplined for the incident. He met with representatives of the law firm Alston and Bird late Sunday afternoon and said the undisclosed discipline exceeded their recommendation.
“This is a discipline matter,” Koonin said. “He will be punished. It will remain private.”
‘I support Steve’s leadership and greatly appreciate his support,” Ferry told AJC. “I look to learn from this situation and help us become a better organization.”
Attempts to reach several Hawks players were unsuccessful.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, at the center of the sanctions against Sterling, said in a statement that Levenson informed him of his decision to sell his interest in the Hawks Saturday night. Silver said he will work with the Hawks during the sale process. The Clippers sold for $2 billion last month. In April, the Bucks were sold for $550 million.
“As Mr. Levenson acknowledged the views he expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association,” Silver said in a statement released by the league. “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.”
Silver would not comment beyond his statement, according to a league official.
Levenson served as the Hawks representative on the NBA’s Board of Governors. It was not immediately known when Levenson would give up those duties and who would assume the responsibility.
Levenson was part of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group that bought the Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena in 2005. The ownership group was almost immediately sent into turmoil over the Hawks’ signing of Joe Johnson by an eventual lawsuit and lengthy court proceedings that led to Steve Belkin selling his interest in the franchises.
The infighting reflected negatively on the ownership group in public opinion. In 2011, the ownership group sold the Thrashers to a group that relocated the NHL franchise to Winnipeg in another unpopular local decision. In August of 2011, the ownership agreed to sell a controlling interest in the team to Los Angeles business man Alex Meruelo, who would have been the first Hispanic majority owner in NBA history.
The deal fell through and a year later Levenson publicly expressed his renewed desire to keep the Hawks.
The ownership group, seeking in part to rebrand itself, sold an interest in the organization to Koonin and named the former television executive as CEO in April to be the face of the franchise.
“Zero tolerance is a buzz word but here it’s a policy,” Koonin said. “… I’m very concerned. I sent an email to every season-ticket holder, every sponsor and I put my email address on it. I’ve probably got 100 responses back. I will tell you they are probably 50-50 — thank you for being transparent and some who say I want my money back. I’m going to return every one of those emails.”
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