SBD/September 8, 2014/Franchises

Levenson To Sell Hawks After Internal Investigation Finds Racially Charged E-Mail

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Levenson in July self-reported his e-mail to the NBA
Hawks Managing Partner Bruce Levenson "will sell his controlling interest in the franchise because of an 'inappropriate and offensive' internal e-mail sent two years ago regarding, in part, the lack of white fans at Philips Arena," according to a front-page piece by Chris Vivlamore of the ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. Levenson "made the abrupt announcement Sunday, months after he self-reported the email to the NBA in July and the team and league commenced an independent investigation." In an Aug. 25, 2012 e-mail sent to Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Partners Todd Foreman and Ed Peskowitz, Levenson wrote of poor attendance at Hawks home games, "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant (sic) season ticket base." Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said that other disciplinary action "will be taken," including against Ferry. At a team meeting in June to discuss free agents, Ferry "cited a background report that included an 'offensive and racist' remark." Koonin said of Ferry, "Instead of editing it, he said the comment." Koonin said that the Hawks ownership group "raised a red flag regarding the comment." The group then "decided that there would be an internal investigation." The Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird "conducted 19 interviews and examined 24,000 documents" and the Levenson e-mail was discovered "during that search." Koonin "will oversee all team operations during the sale process." NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that he "will work with the Hawks" during the process. Levenson represented the Hawks on the NBA BOG, and it "was not immediately known when Levenson would give up those duties and who would assume the responsibility." Koonin said, "Zero tolerance is a buzz word but here it’s a policy. ... I’m very concerned. I sent an email to every season-ticket holder, every sponsor and I put my email address on it. I’ve probably got 100 responses back. I will tell you they are probably 50-50 -- thank you for being transparent and some who say I want my money back. I’m going to return every one of those emails" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 9/8).

BEHIND THE SCENES: Koonin appeared on this morning’s episode of CNN's “New Day," and said Levenson “decided that instead of fighting it or doing some of the things that you’ve seen in the past, he thought it was best for the city, for the team, for his family to walk away." Koonin said he met with the team, and it was “like walking into a funeral.” Koonin: “These are young men who wear our city’s name and our logo on their chests. They play for a team and they are supposed to be supported by their ownership and ownership failed in supporting them” (“New Day,” CNN, 9/8). YAHOO SPORTS' Adrian Wojnarowski said, "The NBA is saying Levenson is trumpeting the fact that he self-reported this. The way I see self-reported is you had a crisis of conscience that you knew this thing was out there, you went through your e-mails and pulled it out. Not somebody went and found it sent, then said, ‘Hey this thing is going to get out whether you do it or we move this forward.’ The wheels got in motion here over the last month and a half, and it led to Levenson finally agreeing to sell his team late Saturday night” ("The Dan Patrick Show,” 9/8).

AT THE LEAGUE LEVEL: YAHOO SPORTS' Wojnarowski cited sources as saying that over the past several days, "several high-ranking NBA officials, including owners, flew to New York to meet with Silver and discuss how the NBA would proceed on the contents" of Levenson's e-mail. Silver and other league execs had been "so secretive" over the "identity of Levenson, that only tiny parcels of information escaped a fortified inner circle" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 9/7). In N.Y., Andrew Keh in a front-page piece writes the Levenson situation "is another embarrassment for the NBA." It has "made vivid again the outlines of racial division that exist in the NBA -- 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" (N.Y. TIMES, 9/8). In N.Y., William Rhoden writes he now understands "why the NBA did not want" the Sterling case to go to trial. But in light of this "second embarrassing disclosure," Silver "should conduct an investigation to find out how many other Donald Sterlings and Bruce Levensons are among the league’s owners and top executives" (N.Y. TIMES, 9/8). Univ. of South Florida Sport & Entertainment Business Management MBA Founding Dir Bill Sutton, who previously worked as NBA VP/Team Marketing Services, said, "Anybody who thinks they did anything dubious is going through their email files. I don't think this is an isolated incident" (L.A. TIMES, 9/8). SI.com's Chris Mannix: "It does kind of open a Pandora's box with what happened with Donald Sterling. Now, every owner in the league is kind of looking at themselves and saying, ‘Do I have this type of email out there lurking? Is there something insensitive that I said in the past in a group setting or maybe something somebody has on a cell phone?’” (“Morning Joe,” MSNBC, 9/8).

CURIOUS TIMING? In Atlanta, Jeff Schultz writes Levenson's ouster will remove the ownership group's "most divisive and publicly ridiculed figure and it should give the franchise a chance to move forward." But Schultz asks, "Why is Levenson suddenly throwing himself on the sword now? Was there some reason to think the email was going to become public?" The NBA is "hypersensitive to racial issues in the league now, especially at the executive level in light of Sterling being forced to sell the team following his secretly recorded racist rants." It "can’t be confirmed at this time if Levenson believed that the email would be disclosed in a league investigation." Levenson "could have been looking for a reason to sell, anyway" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 9/8). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Cohen & Herring note it is "unclear whether the entire club or just Mr. Levenson's controlling stake will be up for sale." Levenson's group "was poised to sell the team" to L.A. businessman Alex Meruelo in '11 before "both sides mutually agreed to terminate the deal" (WSJ.com, 9/7). CBS' Mark Strassmann noted Levenson was one of Sterling's "fiercest critics in the weeks after the recording was made public" ("CBS This Morning," CBS, 9/8).

PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS: USA TODAY's Nancy Armour writes Levenson's e-mail "might not have had the blatant vitriol" of Sterling's comments, but "make no mistake: His views were just as hateful, ignorant and damaging -- maybe even more so because they were couched as being somehow well-intentioned." Levenson's departure "is good for the NBA" (USA TODAY, 9/8). CBSSPORTS.com's Ken Berger wrote in the wake of the Sterling scandal, this "is the zero-tolerance era for racial bias" in basketball. The issue "points to the important, and perhaps yet incomplete fallout from the ouster of Sterling." The NBA now "walks a perilous tightrope between privacy and core values" (CBSSPORTS.com, 9/8). SPORTS ON EARTH's Sean Highkin writes, "Welcome to the post-Donald Sterling NBA." While Levenson's case "is worlds apart from Sterling's in severity and visibility, Sterling's shadow looms large over the NBA and its owners" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 9/8). In Toronto, Bruce Arthur writes under the header, "Levenson Racism Stir Not Donald Sterling Sequel" (TORONTO STAR, 9/8). In Boston, Gary Washburn writes while Levenson's statements "were harsh and stereotypical, it’s rather ridiculous to assume that Levenson is the only NBA or professional sports owner, for that matter, to discuss racial demographics regarding attendance" (BOSTON GLOBE, 9/8). ESPN.com's J.A. Adande wrote it is "not that Levenson used loaded language or expressed a desire for African-Americans to stay away from the games." It is the "disconnect that's the problem," and the "lack of value he placed on black fans and even their money." Adande: "The refusal to recognize their humanity. That's no way to do business in the NBA, particularly in Atlanta, where African-Americans are such a prominent part of the business, political and social scene" (ESPN.com, 9/7).

REACTIONS ROLLING IN: ESPN’s Mike Greenberg said, “This in its own way is way worse than Donald Sterling. This is actually an action. This is a deed. This is from a basketball standpoint. This is a guy who is basically saying, ‘We need to get the black people out of our arena so the white people will come.’ In its own way this is infinitely more infuriating than anything that happened with Donald Sterling, but because it doesn't include the language and because we don’t have an audio tape of it, it won't get the same amount of attention” (“Mike & Mike,” ESPN Radio, 9/8). MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said Levenson wrote in a "very clumsy, bad way" about fans "that every front office in the NBA is grappling with: How to get white suburban fans into an arena along with people of color?" Columbia Univ. associate professor Dorian Warren said "what was shocking to me reading" the e-mail is "how bad of a manager he is. Doesn't he have staff to do the demographics and data collection on what will attract the fans to the game? He's just spouting theories that have no basis necessarily in reality." But Warren added, "This is how front offices of the NBA think all the time. I would hope other teams use actual data and research to support those kinds of assertions" (“Morning Joe,” MSNBC, 9/8). ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said of Levenson, “I'm waiting to hear how white southerners feel because he basically labeled them as folks that are scared of black people. You are speaking for them. Regardless of how foolish and inflammatory Levenson sounds, it's about business with him. That's what he was talking about here. He was talking about the white male demographic, which he labeled the primary demo for the NBA, because they're the ones that spend the most on season tickets” (“First Take,” ESPN2, 9/8).
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