Sep 8, 2014

For the second time this year, the owner of a professional basketball team will sell his controlling interest of a franchise after his racially insensitive views were made public.

Bruce Levenson, who has led the ownership group of the Atlanta Hawks since 2004, informed N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver on Saturday that he intended to sell the team, effectively cutting short a league investigation into an email that Mr. Levenson sent two years ago to fellow Hawks executives detailing his thoughts on how the team could attract more white fans.

On Sunday, when the issue came to light, the Hawks released the text of the August 2012 email, in which Mr. Levenson speculated that the team’s black fans had “scared away the whites” and that there were “not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.”

“I think Southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority,” Mr. Levenson said in his email, pointing out that he had earlier told the executive team that he wanted “some white cheerleaders” and “music familiar to a 40-year-old white guy,” and that he thought “the kiss cam is too black.”

The situation is another embarrassment for the N.B.A., which is trying to move beyond its protracted conflict with Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers this summer after the emergence of an audio recording in which he made disparaging remarks about blacks. It has made vivid again the outlines of racial division that exist in the N.B.A. — particularly among its owners, who are overwhelmingly white, and its players, a majority of whom are black — even as the league has distinguished itself as a leader among American professional sports in confronting diversity issues. That a racial issue came to the fore in Atlanta, long been seen as a center of black culture, is particularly striking.

It was Mr. Levenson himself, according to the N.B.A., who made the league aware of the existence of the email two months ago — a fact that raised more questions than it answered as the situation became public on Sunday. It was not clear what motivated Mr. Levenson to self-report, though the disclosure apparently came around the time that Mr. Sterling said he had hired private investigators to dig up information that would show that his behavior was not out of line with that of other N.B.A. owners.

David B. Anders of the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz was leading the N.B.A.’s investigation of Mr. Levenson, and had the process run its course, Mr. Levenson would almost certainly have faced discipline from the league.

Mr. Levenson’s email was sent on the night of Aug. 25, 2012, to Danny Ferry, the team’s general manager, and Ed Peskowitz and Todd Foreman, two members of his ownership group. While commenting on various aspects of team business, Mr. Levenson included a long passage linking the team’s struggles to sell season-ticket packages to its inability to attract white fans and corporations. In bullet points, he observed that 70 percent of the crowd seemed to be black, that the cheerleaders were black, that music played at the arena and at postgame concerts was hip-hop or gospel, and that “there are few fathers and sons at the games.” He also noted that the racial makeup at Hawks games did not match other arenas around the league.

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It was a contrite Mr. Levenson who issued a statement Sunday recanting the sentiments expressed in that email.

“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Silver, the commissioner, responded in a statement, “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.”

Those principles were tested earlier this year when the N.B.A. barred Mr. Sterling from the league, fined him $2.5 million and eventually worked with the other owners to force him to sell the Clippers for $2 billion. Mr. Sterling is pursuing an antitrust lawsuit against the N.B.A.

Bobby Samini, one of Mr. Sterling’s lawyers, declined to say Sunday whether he knew of Mr. Levenson’s email before it became public, but he was skeptical that Mr. Levenson had come forward of his own volition.

“I can’t imagine there’s any shred of truth to that,” Mr. Samini said. “Adam Silver has established a precedent and the precedent is this: If you have any information that’s damaging to an N.B.A. team, it’s worth something. It’s probably part of some shakedown scheme.”

The N.B.A. took issue with suggestions that Levenson was coerced in any way. “Any claim that Mr. Levenson didn’t self-report his email is categorically false,” Michael Bass, a league spokesman, said.


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