September 7, 2014 / 5:25 PM / 3 years ago

NBA Hawks' owner to sell control of team, cites racially insensitive remarks

Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith (C), goes up for a basket between Boston Celtics forward Brandon Bass (L), and center Kevin Garnett (R), in the second half of their NBA basketball game in Atlanta, Georgia January 5, 2013. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

(Reuters) - The owner of the Atlanta Hawks announced on Sunday he will sell his controlling interest in the National Basketball Association franchise because of racially insensitive remarks he made, in an echo of a scandal involving the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team.

Hawks owner Bruce Levenson said fans have a right to be angry about an internal email he wrote two years ago about the need to boost arena attendance and how black and white fans differed in what they preferred to see at Hawks’ games.

“In trying to address those issues, I wrote an e-mail two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive,” Levenson said in a statement released by the team.“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be. I‘m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them,” he added.

His e-mail to team general manager Danny Ferry, which addressed ways to boost the number of season ticket holders, delved into racial makeup of fans at the Hawks arena and suggested that southern white men might not be comfortable in an arena with a high percentage of African American fans.

Levenson’s announcement came just over four months after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in an unprecedented move, banned then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league and fined him $2.5 million for making racist remarks.

Sterling had been heard, in taped private comments, imploring a female friend not to associate with black people.

The Clippers saga ended last month when former Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer took over as the new owner of the franchise after completing a $2 billion purchase.

Prior to that sale, the Clippers were ranked by business magazine Forbes as the 13th most valuable NBA team with a value of $575 million in January. By contrast, the Hawks ranked 27th among the 30 NBA teams, with a value in January of $425 million and total revenue of $119 million.

HARMFUL MESSAGE

NBA Commissioner Silver said in a statement Levenson had notified the league in July of his August 2012 e-mail, and the NBA then launched an independent investigation into the circumstances of the remarks.

“Prior to the completion of the investigation, Mr. Levenson notified me last evening that he had decided to sell his controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks,” Silver said.

While he commended Levenson for reporting the e-mail and for cooperating with the league in its investigation, Silver also criticized the remarks themselves as in “stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association.”

Levenson, in describing his own remarks, said his words went against his public views on racism, adding that by focusing on race he had sent an unintentional and harmful message that white fans were more valuable than black fans.

He said his e-mail also trivialized fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests in music and having black versus white cheerleaders, and stereotyped their perceptions of one another in suggesting white fans might be afraid of black fans.

”I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true,” Levenson said. “That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA.”

Hawks’ CEO Steve Koonin, who will oversee team operations during the sale process, said he would work in partnership with the NBA to ensure “a new ownership team will be put in place that is united and committed to the Atlanta community.”

Last season, the Hawks finished eighth in the 15-team Eastern Conference standings with a win-loss record of 38-44 before being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers.

Their attendance record is among the worst in the league: they were ranked 28th in the league for attendance after the 2013-14 season with an average of 14,339 fans per game.

As the St. Louis Hawks, the team won their only NBA Championship title in 1958, along with four Western Conference titles between 1957 and 1961.

Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City and Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Simao and Frances Kerry

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