Anyone interested in owning an NBA basketball team may want to consider the Atlanta Hawks after another round of racial issues hits the league. Just months after Donald Sterling was banned for life from any association with the NBA or the LA Clippers for making racial comments and just months after he was forced to sell the Clippers, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves in a similar situation. Danny Ferry, the team’s general manager, was recorded making racially insensitive statements about prospective player, Luol Deng. An investigation into the issue revealed that co-owner, Bruce Levenson, had also made some inappropriate comments, two years ago, in an email to the team’s general manager and his co-owners.
While both men are under fire for their comments, Ferry, lauded for revamping the Hawk’s roster and inspiring a new winning attitude in the two years or so that he has been with the team, elected to take an indefinite leave of absence. He has stated that he was merely repeating comments he had heard from others. In these comments, he informed conference call participants that Deng was a nice enough guy but likened his African heritage to that of a guy with a nice establishment in front who would sell knock-off items in the back. Though he has apologized to Deng and to the team for repeating those comments, callers were unaware at the time that the thoughts he expressed were not his own.
Meanwhile, Levenson’s written comments were unwittingly uncovered while Ferry’s verbal comments were being investigated. While his Aug. 2012 memo to team personnel, including Danny Ferry, expressing his concerns about Hawks games being inundated by African-Americans is disturbing, some fans are speculating about the timing. Facebook and other social media posts by Hawks fans insinuate that Levenson’s sudden willingness to sell his ownership shares of the Atlanta Hawks to anyone who has an interest is just a little too convenient in light of the issue of Ferry’s racist comment.
In the 2012 email, Levenson pointed out that the majority of the fans attending Atlanta Hawks games are African-Americans, the music is hip hop and even the fans picked out of the crowd for shooting competitions are always black. He complained about the crowd at the bar being too black and also about the cheerleaders the majority of whom are women of color. He also noted that white males were uncomfortable in the arena stating, “I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority.”
In an open letter to Atlanta, to the team and to Hawks fans, chief executive, Steve Koonin apologized for what he calls, “Inflammatory words, phrases, inferences and innuendos about race,” that have apparently been acceptable in the Hawks culture for many years. Koonin goes on to say that the organization did not do what it should have to correct these failings. In an effort to rectify the damage caused by these incidents, Koonin pledges that the team will take a number of actions including hiring a diversity consultant and meeting with civil rights activists to start a dialogue intended to, “Cultivate an inclusive, respected and vibrant fan base.”
Some, including former NBA player Magic Johnson and Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon, are calling for Ferry to lose his job. Others including Koonin and NBA commissioner Adam Silver believe that harsh disciplinary measures, which have not been identified, and the leave of absence, currently of unknown duration, are enough punishment for his actions. It has been stated by Koonin, in an attempt to take the spotlight off Ferry that at the heart of the issue is contention amongst the owners.
Indeed, the Atlanta Hawks have struggled with lackluster playoff results and power struggles within the leadership. This latest blemish, culminating from Ferry’s racial comments and the discovery of a two-year old email in which majority owner, Bruce Levenson, disparages the Atlanta Hawks fan base for being too black, may be the final straw.
It may also be the impetus needed to start a new chapter in Hawks history. There are rumors that former Atlanta Hawks player, Dominique Wilkins is interested in purchasing the team. There is also talk that legendary record producer Clive Davis’s son Doug, may be a contender. Whatever the future holds, Atlanta Hawks fans deserve someone, anyone who can turn things around and make them proud once more and move past the current issues of race from the front office.
By Constance Spruill