Roxanne Jones: Bruce Levenson's email revealed NBA owner scapegoating blacks
She says he thought profits low because too many blacks at games, but team is mediocre
Jones: This bigot gets no points for "self-reporting"; he's selling interest under pressure
Jones: Levenson touted as public do-gooder but is a hypocrite
Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women’s topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete” and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Bruce Levenson couldn’t cut it as a successful NBA owner. His business, the Atlanta Hawks, was failing. He needed a scapegoat, and he blamed African-Americans, his most loyal customer base. Apparently, he forgot those fans are the only group that has stuck by him in spite of the inferior product he’s put on the basketball court since he took over the team 11 years ago. He should be grateful any fans showed up for the games at all.
His first mistake, among many, has been forgetting that Hawks have been barely a smidgen above mediocre for as long as any sports fan can remember. Philips Arena is dull; the overpriced concession food is awful. And no matter what anyone says about “Hotlanta,” football (college first and then NFL) will always be king in that city.
So if you are going to invest in the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, a league that boasts the highest share of black television viewers, at 45% – three times higher than the NFL or NCAA basketball – and a player roster that is nearly 80% black, well, then you better have a smart business strategy to keep your core customers happy and attract corporate dollars at the same time.
Levenson, it seems, had no winning strategy. The “self-reporting” bigot seems to have awakened one day, looked around the City of Atlanta (which according to the 2010 census is 54% African-American and 38.4% white) and decided that all of his business failures in Atlanta had nothing to do with his own mismanagement of the team. He then sent a racist, ranting email to his business partners, outlining his personal theories about how their failing franchise might be turned around.
Levenson has apologized for his tirade and said he will sell his controlling interest in the team.
“I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive,” Levenson said in a Hawks news release. “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). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.”
But I take his apology with a large grain of salt. Though his rambling email was incoherent and ill-advised, in hindsight at least, it reads as though it is the words of a man speaking from his heart. In fact, it turns out Levenson’s decision to sell his interest in the team was triggered by the discovery of his inflammatory email by an outside law firm reviewing the organization, according to CNN reports.
In professional sports and in business, winning is everything. Nothing else counts. And when Levenson and his partners realized that the arena was half-empty, the first questions Levenson should have asked are: Will sports fans pay money to watch this team play? And what are my successful competitors doing to attract more customers?
Well, according to the Hawks website, the average ticket price is $103 per game, and the average fan and corporate packages run from $599 to $4,499 per season. I’m not sure about Levenson, but I could definitely find a better way to spend my hard-earned cash and my time than driving to an arena to watch a losing team.
Levenson’s downtown pro sports neighbors, the Atlanta Falcons, are certainly having no problem thriving in an urban environment where it is necessary to court African-American customers. The Falcons, who have posted five consecutive winning seasons, including four trips to the playoffs, sell out nearly every game, and they do so in part because they intentionally put a smart strategy in place to attract their African-American fanbase. Successful teams across sports in cities like New York, Washington and Los Angeles are using this same multicultural business strategy to run winning franchises.
Levenson is now getting undeserved credit for reportedly going first to the NBA to confess that he sent the racist email before it was exposed. The league, to its credit, in the wake of the Donald Sterling disaster, had been vetting other team owners who fostered climates of discrimination and bigotry behind closed doors. Therefore, clearly, Levenson had a compelling reason to come clean about his 2-year-old email.
Sterling was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers over the summer when racist audio recordings came to light. He defended himself then, saying that he was not the only NBA owner to harbor prejudice attitudes. And there’s no arguing that he was right. Despite its leading record in the sports industry on diversity hiring, both on and off the court, the NBA is no stranger to the controversial topic of race in sports.
It is ironic that Levenson, touted as a public do-gooder, has missed his own message of tolerance and understanding. This year, he took his NBA team the Holocaust museum in Washington. The players even met Levenson’s mother-in-law, Irene Boyarsky, a concentration camp survivor. Levenson said then: “Having them come here and having them see the faces of bigotry and hate, it’s important. For them to learn lessons of this museum and of the Holocaust means a lot to me.”
Tolerance is a pretty word we like to use. But in real life, it takes courage, humility and commitment to live by it. Whether the topic is homophobia, gender equality or religious intolerance, Levenson certainly is not the first person whose public actions have fallen short of their private hearts.
But Levenson’s brand of public hypocrisy is not just morally corrupt, it is bad for business. And the NBA is big business. Thanks to strong leaders like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and his predecessor David Stern, who have implemented tough love but racial compassion, the league has not only preached but mostly practiced racial tolerance. It’s a smart strategy because without African-American fans, and the talented men who play the game, there is no league. And today, the best companies are looking for a way to diversify and grow their customer base.
I say good riddance to Levenson and other NBA owners like him, of which I think there are few. And kudos to Silver and others who are working to root out racist owners.
“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 Sunday.
Call me overly optimistic, but I believe that most NBA owners are decent people. And more important, they are shrewd businessmen who understand that in today’s global economy, a company that doesn’t not have the cultural intelligence to build a diverse customer base will fail.
In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois poignantly wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk,” “for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” And today, as America’s face shifts from white to shades of brown, it remains to be seen whether we will ever stop stumbling over that line, fearing the line, hating that line, so we can finally stand together as one strong nation.