(Reuters) - The owner of the Atlanta Hawks announced on Sunday he would 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 Levenson episode was especially striking as it unfolded in one of the nation’s largest majority-black cities, a center of African-American culture, wealth and political power and the birthplace of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
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.
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 blacks.
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.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed decried Levenson’s published remarks as contrary to “the city of Atlanta’s history of diversity and inclusion” and hailed the “NBA’s efforts to enforce a no-tolerance policy” against discrimination.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton issued a statement encouraging Silver “to continue vetting all (NBA) owners.”
Last season, the Hawks finished eighth in the 15-team Eastern Conference standings with a win-loss record of 38-44.
Their attendance record is among the lowest in the league. The franchise won its only NBA championship in 1958 as the St. Louis Hawks.
Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles, and Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Paul Simao, Frances Kerry and Jeremy Laurence