Atlanta Hawks Shine Bright Light On Institutionalized Racism Hiding in Basketball

(Opinion) After the increased atmosphere of racial discourse that has electrified the summer of 2014, one would hope beyond hope that the autumn winds bring some calm to the nation’s collective psyche. Is it blasphemous to at least ponder the possibility of a change in the season bringing on renewed reasoning on race relations in America? Alas, it was just a dream. It wasn’t that long ago that the very history of the National Basketball Association was racked to its core with the “revelation” that Donald Sterling was a stark raving racist.

But this alleged revelation was a misnomer as the NBA was made aware of racial discrimination charges being filed against him in 2006 and 2010. Even Elgin Baylor, a former GM of the Los Angeles Clippers, stated his belief that Sterling was a racist. Yet that wasn’t even the first time an owner has been caught injecting race into his business policies in the NBA. In 1979, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien told his general manager he wanted his rosters to be 50 percent white because white fans like watching players who looked like themselves.Though debatable whether a 50 percent white American team would get dismantled in the modern NBA, other idioms of Stepien’s theory are still being exercised today in the multicultural and global marketing practices of the modern NBA, but back then the league convinced him to sell the team.  

On Monday, in the midst of a media maelstrom surrounding disgraced NFL running back Ray Rice, another early morning announcement was made. Atlanta Hawks majority owner Brad Levenson announced he would sell his stake in the team due to his self-reporting of a racially charged email he wrote during 2012. During an investigation that was initially set off by racial comments made by GM Danny Ferry, an offense that fellow owner Michael Gearson petitioned for Ferry to be fired over, the email written by Levenson surfaced, to which he stated:

"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.

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

Originally written in 2012, the following excerpt was sent by Levenson to team officials in frustration over the lack of affluent white male patrons in a city that is 54 percent African American, with a vibrant upper-middle class and upper class population. He posed that the reason for the Atlanta Hawks inability to sell more season tickets was tied to the predominance of blacks in attendance and the dearth of whites and corporate buyers.

“My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base. Please don't get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena 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 Philips 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.”

There are those who, at face value, believe that this practice in economic eugenics in the heart of Old Dixie is not indicative of an institutional mindset on race, but rather a practice in ignorance. Racial ambiguity of some ignorant Americans is at times innocent due to a lack of facts. Racism, on the other hand, is the theory or practice of a philosophy that would place one race and its interests above that of the interests of all others-making them superior in this equation. 

In Levenson’s email we find the existence of ignorance in the face of facts, as was his need to mention fears of dangerous black people despite admitting in the same email that there had been no incidence of violent crimes in or near the arena the Hawks call home. It’s also steeped in the miasmic excreta of the Antebellum Atlanta of the Old Confederacy, insinuating that whites were fearful of being in the minority among blacks. This type of fear is based in the Old Southern fear of a slave revolt by slaves that often outnumbered their masters 4 to 1 in some areas before the Civil War. In addition, it’s a not so subtle dig at black civility in public settings and a perceived universal dislike of black people by whites.

This article easily refutes several different cockamamie Levenson business theories, theories that were clearly meant to explain away his own failure to sell to more white males. Why even searcg for these affluent white males he’s referring to in the city, deemed the Capital of the Black South, of under 500,000 people with a population that is 38.4 percent white? Then Mr. Levenson mentioned Washington, DC, and its affluent African American population, as the barometer for his theory, mentioning the Washington Wizards’ 15 percent African American attendance rate as an example of where the Hawks should be. Simple geography refutes the logic in his statement.

The Baltimore-Washington area’s population is around 9.3 million people. The Atlanta metropolitan area’s population is 6.1 million people in an area that encompasses 20 counties. Additionally, Blacks make up 32 percent of the population in this area, while they only make up 25 percent of the population in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Apparently a failure to grasp simple math and geography got Levenson all crossed up and the rest of his letter pummels the racial plummets to even deeper depths. Selling his stake in the franchise is the least he can do, but it will have to do. Not just because he’s a accidental racist, but because his steadfast belief in Black people being the source of his team’s economic woes is an exercise in stupidity and white privilege.

Have you ever wondered how easy it is for a rich man to blame his financial problems on black people? Well, pretty easy it appears. A privilege to some is often a bane to others. The likelihood that Bruce Levenson is the last racist owner in the NBA is very small. As has been illustrated through Ted Stepien, Donald Sterling and now Levenson himself, the NBA brand is littered with racists. And it’s a good chance no one will ever know to what extent. However, before we go dismissing Levenson’s ideas on pseudo-economics and Donald Sterling’s stated beliefs that African Americans players are his property as anomalies just yet, we only need to remind you that the investigation into Levenson was actually brought on by the actions of General Manager Danny Ferry about Loul Deng when he was a free agent this June. Ferry, a former Duke Blue Devil who played for Coach Mike Krzyzewski from 1985 to 1989, uttered the following on a call in regarding current Miami Heat player Loul Dieng, who attended Duke University between 2003 and 2004.

"Not in a bad way, but he's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.

"Ferry completed the racial slur by describing the player [and implied all persons of African descent] as a two-faced liar and cheat," according to reports.

Ferry has since released the standard apologetic statement about the “type” of guy he really is and “apologizing” for what he said, but what one believes in their heart of hearts is not so easily expunged. Later, Ferry said he read the statements off of a scouting report and they were not his words, but other individuals within the Hawks’ organization refute that claim. Owner Michael Gearson has since levied an undisclosed penalty on Ferry, but anything short of his firing would be unacceptable. That may be another eventual conclusion of the entire racial probe into the Atlanta Hawks. We’re not saying he doesn’t deserve to earn a living, but doing so in Atlanta, the Capital of the Black South, after making such heinous statements is highly unlikely and extremely bad for business. 

Lastly, remember back in 2011 when ESPN NBA commentator Jalen Rose was taken to task for believing that Duke University only recruited middle-class black players? He was admonished for simply speaking on what he once believed yet was lambasted because of it. After all, such speech of race and class had no place in American basketball. Remember that? He said he remembered “thinking as a child that Duke only recruited Uncle Toms and didn’t like recruiting city kids." That was the viewpoint of an 18-year-old basketball player, but when the 38-year-old Rose repeated them in remembrance of those feelings he was called a racist.

Though a bit egregious, his comments were indicative of an individual who either learned or was taught the realities of race in recruiting and talent evaluation from the player point of view. Mike Krzyzewski's dig at Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King for not being good enough for him to recruit were a bit beneath old Coach K. Did Jalen strike a nerve?

Now, with the Stepien, Sterling, Ferry and Levenson's statements and history as our template, we see that the young Jalen Rose may have been hyper-sensitized to the way race and class were being used to recruit and evaluate young men of African descent like himself. In the past, many radical sounding critics have talked about the similarities between a slave auction and the NFL and NBA combines. With the increasing empirical data available supporting the existence of a mindset in support, of or in reference to, an antebellum business model amid NBA franchise majority owners, that belief is increasingly plausible.

Today, the public has more of a reason to believe in the existence of a seldom spoken of slave relationship between million dollar black athletes and billionaire team owners than they did Sunday night. However, it is somewhat laughable to hear of anyone’s surprise at the matter. After all, immediately following Donald Sterling’s departure it was hinted that there were more owners who held their own racist beliefs close to the vest. Now, we know for certain of that statements’ severe truth. If another turned up tomorrow, would you still be surprised?