I really hope there is an “Edward Snowden” in the office of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. I really hope there is someone with a computer and a conscience who can tell us how the Atlanta Hawks franchise has come to be placed on the auction block. If you have missed the story, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has “self-reported” a 2012 e-mail detailing the tragedy of how there are too many black fans at Atlanta’s home games. He posits that the hip-hop music, the number of black cheerleaders and the “too black” kiss cam is keeping “40 year old white guys” away from the arena. Chastened by his memory of the e-mail, we now hear, Levenson has sent it to the commissioner and agreed to sell the franchise.
If you believe this story, then you might also think that Daniel Snyder just started practicing Native American philanthropy out of the goodness of his heart. There are really only two scenarios that make sense. The first is that, following the expulsion of Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his racism went audio, owners are vulnerable. This e-mail was going to leak, and rather than deal with the firestorm, Levenson is getting out in the off-season.
The second is just a tad more cynical: the Sterling Family Trust just sold the Clippers for 2.4 billion bucks. Levenson has wanted to unload this team for years, even selling it in 2011, only to have the league void the sale. Now, in the wake of the owner-friendly 2011 collective bargaining agreement, NBA teams have seen their values skyrocket. The sorry Milwaukee Bucks went for $550 million earlier this year and Mavs owner Mark Cuban called this “a bargain.” Levenson gets a world of negative publicity, but his e-mail, which includes critiques of Southern whites’ “racist garbage” is ambiguous enough that it’s hardly a Don Sterling or Jimmy the Greek level of nuclear racist invective. In other words, he will still get invited to all the parties. He also probably spurs an NBA sponsored bidding war for his franchise. Maybe some owners think racism can be the new stock speculation, bringing publicity and putting air into the league’s financial bubble.
Either way, the NBA will help him because Levenson writes nothing in the letter that has not been on the front burner for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1970s, as David Halberstam wrote in 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, the powers-that-be in the NBA thought the league was too thuggish, too urban and, in their minds, too black. The dream was to make the league palatable to a stereotypical, upscale suburban audience. New commissioner David Stern, with the help of three players named Magic, Bird and Jordan, did exactly that and sent the league into the global stratosphere. Starting in the post-Jordan late 1990s, this executive racial panic returned with a vengeance. Players were now “too gangsta”. Sportswriters were reaching for their monocles at the sight of these new ruffians. Now Stern was consulting Republican strategist Matthew Dowd on how to give the league “red state appeal.” Then the infamous player dress code was instituted. Allen Iverson’s tattoos were airbrushed off of his skin in a league magazine, and high school players were denied entry into the draft. In addition, the league made a big show of announcing new penalties for marijuana use. This reflected their fears that profit margins would shrink if they did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority black league, all with an eye on the green. (Recommended here: David Leonard’s book After Artest: the NBA and the Assault on Blackness about the sport’s racial agenda in this era).
Levenson expressed those anxieties as clear as day. The most revealing and disturbing part of his e-mail is how many people with whom I have spoken find it to be defensible. This is not only because Levenson also blasts the “racist garbage” of white fans avoiding the team. It is apparently defensible because it is so transparently obvious that this is how the NBA has approached their business for decades. After all, does anyone honestly think that racial calculations were never discussed when Warriors owner Joe Lacob orchestrated his team’s move from Oakland to San Francisco or when the Nets relocated from Jersey to gentrifying Brooklyn? But to defend Levenson on that basis, while accurate, misses the larger point. It is a problem that this has been the NBA’s business plan for thirty-five years. To see it written out is to see in stark terms not just the reality of how owners talk about racial issues related to their business but also to how racism is actually organized in corporate circles.
Please read the entire e-mail. It’s fascinating (spelling errors aside). But here are a couple pertinent passages:
[W]hen digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the 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 season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean 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. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around [the arena] yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleader…, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy… i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black. Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games.”
There is more, but that is the section that demands reading and rereading. This is not just a “random Caucasian” spouting his racial theories, complaining that there is too much hippety hop at the games. This is a powerful CEO with the power to put flesh and bone on those ideas: to give away fewer tickets to poor black kids (something he complains about earlier in the e-mail), to fire cheerleaders who are too black, to make the game prohibitive economically or just unwelcoming to a black audience. Or put another way, to give it “red state appeal.” The fact that the NBA operates this way should not excuse Levenson. Instead, it should shine a spotlight on how widespread this kind of thinking has been in the league’s corporate offices. It should also remind us that racism is often a financial and institutional imperative.