NBA Ownership and Tone-Deafness: A Brief Consideration of Bruce Levenson’s Email, Atlanta, and Myopia


Maybe one of the reasons the topic of race continues to dominate our culture in general and sporting culture specifically, is that so many people are unclear just what their own views on the topic actually are. Humans tend to fear what they don’t know. In an increasingly segregated America, fear and anxiety seem to be growing steadily. Only when it bubbles over in relatively obscure places like Ferguson, Missouri or Donald Sterling’s living room, do we actually engage in any kind of national conversation. The rest of the time it is so ubiquitous, so omnipresent and systemic as to be rendered nearly invisible. You know the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind?” That’s how most people live. Instead of occasionally considering what is beyond their sight, whether it be an issue of race, genocide, or domestic violence, most people keep the ugly and complicated stuff out of mind. Life is messy enough with all the little errands and responsibilities. Most people never wade out into the deeper water.

In academia, race is often described as a “social construct.” Unless you somehow believe in strict genetic differences, and you are uneducated regarding concepts like “nature” vs. “nurture,” the idea of race is complex. America’s empire grew with the banishment of Native Americans, and the enslavement of African Americans. An “us” versus “them” view of the world was made possible by America’s founding fathers, rationalized by the desire for capital, the use of guns, and the fact that they themselves were escaping from brutal situations.

Let’s start there because the African-American wealth concentrated in and around Atlanta today is in part a response to that original enslavement. What was the “Back to the South” movement, if not a desire to reclaim a place that once was the root of so much misery and pain? According to In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience,

Many migrants – a majority of them college-educated – seek economic opportunities in the reascending southern economy; some want to escape deteriorating conditions in northern cities; others return to be nearer to kin, to care for aging relatives, or to retire in a familiar environment with a better quality of life than that found in the urban North.

All, in some way, reclaim the South as their home, the place that African Americans built and where their roots run deep.”

I’m not a citizen of Atlanta. I have not spent much time in the South. I don’t pretend to know why the Atlanta Hawks are the second-least Google-searched NBA team in the league, though Nate Silver’s research shows a strong connection between unpopular internet hoops teams and race. Based on Silver’s numbers, the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies have the highest proportion of African-American fans in the NBA and are among the least searched for. That may say as much about internet tendencies, which are often class-dominated, as it does about race.

In any case, the Hawks were estimated to have lost approximately $13 million (after revenue sharing) last season (via Grantland’s NBA front office sources). This despite the team playing relatively well–especially before a season-ending injury to center Al Horford.

Soon-to-be-former Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson’s now notorious email has been dissected by Albert Burneko (Deadspin), Rembert Browne (Grantland) and William Rhoden (NY Times), among others. Instead of talking about how racist the email was (somewhat), or defending Levenson’s myopic prose as merely a businessman’s attempt at profitability, let’s talk about reality.

Reality always has been and always will be subjective. Being culturally aware, intellectually curious, and self-reflective are ways in which to deal with reality’s subjectivity…and not expose yourself as a bumbling fool. I believe the official business term is CYA: “cover your ass.” Of course, part of the reason why modern media works the way it does is that the bumbling fools have more documented avenues in which to expose themselves (more graphically) than they have in the past.

Everyone paying attention (not enough of us) knew former Clippers owner Donald Sterling was an out-of-touch old man and a racist long before his recorded voice became national news/satire. Real estate was the source of Sterling’s wealth. His treatment of tenants resulted in the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history, as Dave Zirin wrote about long before the recent scandal in his book, Bad Sports, examining a handful of the most despicable sports owners in America.

Most NBA owners are not known by even hardcore NBA fans and NBA media as much of anything. Unless they own high-profile teams or do something especially ridiculous, we rarely hear about sports owners. Especially owners who belong to ownership groups.

An example of a mild case of tone-deafness: Warriors owner Joe Lacob openly discussing how he and new Warrior coach Steve Kerr know each other well through playing golf together (highlighting the impact of exclusive membership which clearly impacts hiring practices). Read Marcus Thompson’s excellent take on the Warriors, Joe Lacob and the firing of Mark Jackson here.

From Thompson’s piece (for the blog of the San Jose Mercury News):

I believe race can be a factor without malice being part of it. The reality is sports is a place where race, culture, class, religion and every other dividing line collide. It is naive to think issues won’t arise out of that. I know people like to view sports as an escape from real life. But your favorite escape is fashioned by real life, and it’s importance to our society has made it real life. So these things can’t be avoided.

An example of a more virulent case of tone-deafness, which deeply alienates any progressive citizens of Atlanta: Hawks soon-to-be-former co-owner Bruce Levenson’s email. Levenson’s underlying thesis is that the Hawks would sell more tickets if they could just keep the black fans away. By emphasizing the need for “35-55 year old white males” to buy season tickets, and highlighting the perceived fears and racial biases of that non-ticket-buying demographic, the content and tone of Levenson’s email go from a somewhat reasonable marketing-brainstorm to an entirely detached tone, which aims to pin-down the complexities of black-white relations in modern Georgia. Levenson makes all kinds of claims about arena operations being “too black.” It is alienating and speculatively racist. It is as if Levenson believes white money can save the Hawks, but African-American money can’t.

The whole debacle was sparked by a quote read (presumably to ownership) by Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry, who was apparently reciting a scouting report (without editing out the inherent racism). The quote was regarding then free-agent Luol Deng: “He is still a young guy overall. He is a good guy overall. But he is not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way.”

Before entering the front office, Ferry played in the NBA. He was a Caucasian power forward without any African in him…except the African that is in every human being…the universally African roots of the homo sapien.

In a city as huge and as heavily African-American as Atlanta, how many of the seven original members of the Atlanta Spirt Group (who bought the Hawks in 2004) are African-American?

Zero.

Are you surprised?

No.

Why?

Because, as Chris Rock informed us so eloquently years ago, there is a gigantic difference between being rich and being wealthy. You must be wealthy to belong to the inner circle of NBA Owners.

What might surprise you, though, is that there is one African-American owner in the NBA.. His name is Michael Jordan. Back when His Airness was in his playing days, he was more concerned with money than politics. The legendary Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, a Democrat who was then running to unseat long-time Republican senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan’s famous reply, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

What can we conclude about the Hawks debacle? It’s about money….and race…and the idea of ownership and appealing to the wealthiest and whitest. It’s about cultural blind-spots and speculation about discomfort. It’s about Atlanta and yet…there is more than one version of modern Atlanta. It’s not all black and white.

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