Backroom Racism: Why Atlanta Hawks Owner’s Email Is Worse Than Sterling’s Rant

Stephen A. Crockett Jr.
Bruce Levenson
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

There are two types of racism that we have seen in recent months from the NBA. One is Donald Sterling's ancient, deep-seated, boisterous disdain that is almost infantile in its delivery. While it is hurtful, it is also obvious and bold.

As Chris Rock said of Sterling's rant, "An 83-year-old white man doesn't like black people. Is that news?"


But Sterling wasn't always an old man. Before he was ousted as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, he was a businessman who refused to rent properties to blacks and Latinos.

Which leads us to the second form of racism, recently reported and revealed in the released email of Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson (pdf). It is more damaging, calculated and deceitful than an old man's feelings about Magic Johnson or his not wanting his mistress to keep the company of black men.

As Meek Mill has told us, "It's levels to this … "

Levenson snitched on himself, telling league officials about an email he wrote to co-owners and ex-NBA player-turned-Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry in 2012.


Mark Cuban warned of this Pandora's box, as he saw it. He wondered how many owners would be found guilty of charges once the hammer was brought down on Sterling, and he was right.

In the email, the business-owner side of Levenson ponders ways to bring white men back to the sport. According to his email, white men, ages 35-55, have left the game. They don't come to the arena and they aren't buying the pricey box seats.  


In a way, it's all Larry Bird's fault.

Ever since the "Hick from French Lick" left the game, white men have been devoid of a melatonin-less player to embrace as their own.


In a sense, all of the things that made Bird unique also made him a part of a common-man Americana ethos, and he was billed that way. For all of Magic Johnson's "Showtime" flair with the Lakers, Bird was the hard worker with the Celtics who made up for his lack of athleticism with wit and determination.

The NBA needed Bird, and since his retirement, it has not had another white player to excite the base. Speed up a bit and the league still has highfliers, amazing dunkers and crazy athletes. For every Magic and Michael Jordan, there is Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. What the NBA doesn't have is an American-born white player who makes white America feel more at home. They don't have a white messiah that lends credence to basketball inadequacies and gives hope to the "everyman game."


Bird himself even pondered the importance of white players in a more-than-70 percent black league.

"You know, when I played, you had me and Kevin [McHale] and some others throughout the league," Bird told ESPN back in 2004. "I think it's good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever."


Wanting to figure out how to bring white fans back to the game isn't racist; in fact, the Hawks owner wasn't even the first to try to figure it out. The NBA has been trying to diversify arenas across the nation since Bird's departure.

Where Levenson's rambling took a racist turn was when he began wondering if hip-hop music or all the blacks in the arena bar or the number of black cheerleaders or the several black faces shown on the kiss cam were the reasons whites stopped coming to games.


What the email reveals is a dark look into a segregated white psyche that doesn't recognize the damage in his thoughts.

The worst part of the email is this: "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base. Please don't get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the [arena] back then. [I] never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority."


It is the idea that somehow blackness equals violence, and that therefore the presence of black people together simply to enjoy a basketball game would make whites uncomfortable, and thus required rectifying.

It's Levenson's silent and systemic racism, shrouded in business maneuvers and behind-the-scenes ramblings to other white figureheads, that is more biting than an old man hollering pathetic, old-man rants about black people. At least you can see the old man coming. You know what he believes and how he feels because he is too old and ignorant to know when to shut up.


Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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