Is the NBA Overreacting to Levenson's Racist Remarks?
Issue   |   Tue, 09/30/2014 - 22:19

In the wake of the Donald Sterling scandal last spring, the NBA and the public have become much more sensitive to racism in sports culture. The question is: have we gone too far?
Earlier this September, in another bombshell case, Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson announced that he would be selling his share of the team. His resignation was directly related to an allegedly racist email he sent in 2012 to the GM of the Hawks, Danny Ferry. This was in part an attempt at damage control, as an NBA investigation was already underway. In the email, he mainly expressed concern that the great amount of African-Americans in the audience were scaring away Caucasian fans, and decreasing profits. Among other ideas, he suggested that the executives increase the number of white cheerleaders, put more whites on the “Kiss-Cams”, and to choose more whites to participate in the half-time activities.

While parts of this email may sound racist when taken out of context, truly Levenson is just trying to increase the profits of his business. Levenson even goes as far as to say that the sentiments of his supposedly scared white audience are “racist garbage”. Any businessman would do anything he could to increase his profits. Consider this: if the opposite were true, meaning the audience was predominately white, and Levenson was trying to attract more minorities to his games, would there have been the same reaction? Certainly not, companies in America and around the world are all trying to do exactly that. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his article on this topic, Levenson’s email “at worst expressed white guilt”. In addition, there was no malicious intent in his email, and thus a key aspect of racism is lacking. While one solution to the problems that Levenson refers to in his email would be to create a new stadium in Atlanta suburbs, this would be uprooting the team from its past and its culture. The Atlanta Braves recently announced that they would be moving from their current stadium in Atlanta to one in the affluent, white suburbs. In doing so, they are abandoning their loyal fans in the hope of increasing revenue. This is exactly what Levenson was trying to avoid. Instead of selling out, and abandoning the fans of his franchise, he wanted to try to make his current arena’s location work. Considering his comments in this light drastically changes how one should interpret them. In fact, all Levenson was trying to do was to recognize the potential racism of his intended fan base. While trying to tread lightly on this obviously sensitive topic, he definitely said some controversial things, but who doesn’t? It’s unfair to characterize a potentially good person by the honest observations he made in good faith. If trying to change one’s business to cater to a certain demographic is racist, then everybody would be guilty. America’s capitalist culture encourages business owners to try to make as much money as possible, so it is unfair for us to criticize them for doing just that. This is a systemic problem, and not one rooted in racism.

In opposition with the Donald Sterling scandal, this example of “racism” pales in comparison. In his comments, Donald Sterling dissuaded his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, from posting picture of African Americans on her Instagram, and from bringing them to Clippers games. His reason for this was that he did not want the Clippers to be associated with African-Americans, even though the majority of his team, and even his coach, are black. The differences between these two cases are almost innumerable. First of all, Donald Sterling had a previous history with racism, while Bruce Levenson does not. Second of all, Sterling’s comments were obviously made with malicious intent, while Levenson’s were not. Comparing these two cases is futile, as they are not at all similar.

Unfortunately, this was not the Hawks only struggle with racism in recent history. During this past free agency, many teams courted Luol Deng, including the Miami Heat and the Atlanta Hawks. When referring to Deng during a conference call, Danny Ferry, GM of the Hawks, said “he has a little African in him”, and that “he’s like a guy that would have a nice store out front and sell counterfeit stuff out the back”. This reignited the original controversy, and made it clear that the culture of the Atlanta Hawks needs to change. Instead of losing his job for these remarks, Ferry is on an “indefinite leave of absence”. This is unacceptable. If Levenson’s comments were enough to force him to sell his share of the team, than Ferry’s should certainly result in him being fired.

In addition, this reveals the toxic ownership of the Atlanta Hawks. Before Levenson sacrificed his portion of the team, he was part of one of two ownership groups of the Atlanta Hawks: his, which was based in Washington D.C., and the Atlanta Spirit, which is based in Atlanta. Before selling his share, Levenson’s group had the controlling stake in the Hawks since December of 2010. After Danny Ferry made his comments, the leader of the Atlanta Spirit, Micheal Gearon Jr., sent Levenson an email stating that he had contacted a lawyer and a judge about Ferry’s comments. He stated that he did so because he is “a minority partner with no effective say in decision-making”. Shortly after sending this email, Gearon initiated an internal investigation into Levenson’s racist remarks. Fearing the worst in the post Donald Sterling-era, Levenson preemptively sacrificed his interest in the team. This entirely complicates the situation. I believe that the Atlanta Spirit took advantage of the NBA’s sensitivity to racism in order to pull a power play. Not only is this morally indefensible, it also calls into question the NBA’s strict and unforgiving stance on racism. While it is obvious that racism is still a problem in the world today, perhaps the NBA has gone too far. If well-intentioned emails from two and a half years ago can be used today to blackmail an owner of a team, changes need to be made. The NBA’s strong stance against racism should not be used as a bargaining chip. In addition, while one cannot know for sure, Levenson most likely felt very guilty about his email, even though it had probably entirely faded from his memory. The Hawks have made two mistakes, first by forcing out a good man, and second, by keeping a man who made obviously racist remarks in a business setting.

In the past few days, Luol Deng has said that he forgives Ferry for his comments, and does not believe that he is racist. This may be true, but the fact remains that he made undeniably racist statements in a business setting. This double-sided situation has made it clear that racism remains a problem in the NBA for more than one reason. It is unacceptable that even in the 21st century, racism is still prevalent in society. This does not mean that we should lead a witch-hunt type crusade against racism in the NBA, rather that we must recognize that it exists as a systemic problem, and try to eradicate it.

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