The sports world is up in arms again over another NBA white owner. This time it’s Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson, who announced on Sunday that he’s selling his controlling interest in the team after a 2012 e-mail surfaced in which he argued that too many black fans are bad for business. Deadspin published the entire e-mail, which reads in part:
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 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.
Levenson’s subtle racism is unlike Donald Sterling’s overt racism. Sterling showed outright contempt for black people at his games on top of a long history of employment and housing discrimination. Levenson, like Kareem Abdul-Jabar argues over at Time, is a businessman who seems to understand how racist perceptions of black fans are hurting his operation. His e-mail contains casually racist allusions ("few fathers and sons at the game") and he doesn’t strongly condemn the racism that he’s accusing Atlanta’s white fans of. He’s also not particularly inclined to change those perceptions and uses a broad brush to paint over an economically diverse community, and that’s a problem when you’re in one of the blackest markets in America.
Together, Sterling’s and Levenson’s views have led to some soul-searching, as described by William C. Rhoden at the New York Times, who wrote, "In light of this second embarrassing disclosure, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver should conduct an investigation to find out how many other Donald Sterlings and Bruce Levensons are among the league’s owners and top executives. Who are the racists, the sexists, the homophobes?"
But the focus on individual racists and misogynists and homophobes is too limited. The bigger problem is structural.
There are 30 NBA franchises that employ roughly 439 players, most of whom are black Americans, according to an unofficial NBA census. But of those 30 teams, only three owners — the Los Angeles Lakers’ Janie Buss, the Charlotte Hornets’ Michael Jordan, and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé — are not white men. Here’s a graphic from the New York Daily News that drives home the point:
Few players graduate to their teams’ front offices, and it’s those front offices that run one of the biggest cultural institutions in America. As Levenson’s e-mail shows, they control the experience of an NBA game, a team’s roster, and that team’s involvement in its local community. If an owner disdains that community, it’s reflected in the organization. Certainly, not all white owners think the way Levenson does. But it might help if they were more representative of the league’s players, fans and cities.