September 8, 2014 / 6:34 PM / 5 years ago

Civil rights leader decries 'culture of racism' at Atlanta Hawks

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Civil rights leaders said on Monday they wanted to meet with Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin to discuss their concerns about pervasive racism at the organization after the team’s owner admitted to making racially insensitive remarks about fans.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr.46th Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

“The culture of racism undermines what we have built here in Atlanta,” the Rev. Markel Hutchins said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The sentiment that black people belong only on the court sends us back to an era Atlantans fought hard to end.”

But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that, while he was offended by Hawks owner Bruce Levenson’s comments, he thought the poor attendance at the team’s games had more to do with its performance than race.

“We shouldn’t have a conversation centered on race when it’s really focused on winning,” Reed said in a radio interview. “Let’s not make it about race.”

Levenson said on Sunday he would sell his controlling interest in the National Basketball Association franchise after disclosing an internal email he wrote in 2012, in which he theorized that the “overwhelmingly black audience” at the Hawks’ games had scared away white fans.

The remarks were particularly ill-received in one of the largest majority-black U.S. cities, a center of African-American culture, wealth and political power.

Atlanta was the birthplace of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and is home to top historically black colleges and the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The revelations about Levenson’s email came just four months after another embarrassment related to race rocked the NBA.

Commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league and fined him $2.5 million after the disclosure that Sterling had asked a female friend not to associate with black people.

Civil rights leaders in Atlanta said the latest incident emphasized the need for more diverse ownership of NBA franchises across the country.

Hutchins and others said they would seek a meeting with Koonin, who will oversee team operations during the sale process, and push for a full investigation of the front office culture.

Atlanta resident Grant Kirby said Levenson’s comments hurt the sport.

“If I were in his position, I would watch what the heck I say,” Kirby said.

Reporting by David Beasley; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric Beech

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