The Atlanta Hawks Racism Scandal

Posted: January 8, 2017

The Atlanta Hawks Racism scandal coming on the heels of the infamous Donald Sterling saga is perhaps less pronounced than the latter but the fallout was not any less severe. The scandal which started after the exposure of perceivably racist comments from the franchise’s general manager Dan Ferry and an email sent by majority owner Bruce Levenson resulted in the team being put up for sale.

Despite being one of the most fierce critics of Donald Sterling during Sterling’s public indictment for extremely racist comments, Levenson’s own fortunes with the Hawks began to unravel barely two months after the former Clippers’ owner’s ban.

How did the Scandal Unfold?

During a free-agent conference call in June 2014, Danny Ferry uttered offensive remark about a free agent who was later revealed to be British-Sudanese player Luol Deng. Ferry was reading a background report on Deng and did make up an effort to clean up the racist language used. However his spoken version was still way off the hate meter. The report said something to the effect that Deng has got some African qualities in him which were good for his game, but then went on to make some unflattering insinuations about his character based on his being African. Ferry was quick to clarify that those were not his words and was paraphrasing the report in real time but there was nothing that could stop the situation from unravelling.

After the meeting, Michael Gearon who co-owned the team with Levenson called for Ferry to be fired and for an independent investigation into the organization’s conduct. Ferry was eventually allowed to continue as general manager but was fined and held a meeting with the players to apologize. An Atlanta law firm hired to carry out the investigation made 19 interviews and audited 24,000 internal emails. The investigation unearthed more fodder for the indictment of the Hawk’s management. One of the bits that emerged was a controversial email sent by Levenson two years earlier to Ferry and other parties discussing how to attract more white fans to Hawks games. According to Levenson, one of the reason that the team was failing financially was that a vast majority of the crowds at the Philips Arena were black. Blacks, he said in the email, did not have the financial power to purchase season tickets and team merchandise, were not as animated as whites in cheering the team and their presence was intimidating to white fans.

The relationship between Levenson and Gearon had been cold from the start and in fact one of the emails obtained by the investigators contained unflattering remarks about Gearon made by Levenson to one of the other co-owners. Gearon had grown up around the franchise and had inherited his share of his team from his father. However citing the immense fortune that had exchanged hands to get the Clippers out of beleaguered Sterling’s hands barely a few months earlier, he implored Levenson to sell the franchise in order to cut their losses from the fallout. Gearon was convinced that the team would fetch much more if sold as a whole unit rather than if he sold his own share. On September 17, 2014 in pro-active fashion and aware that the email would inevitably make it to the press, Levenson revealed the presence of the email to the media and announced his intention to sell the team.

The Aftermath

Although there was widespread condemnation of the saga, opinion was divided about racist motivations on the part of both Levenson and Ferry. Among Levenson’s defenders were some high profile African American including Kareem Abdul-Jabar who opined that there was no racist intent in Levenson’s email, rather it was born out of valid business concern. On April 22, 2015, the team was sold for $850 million to a group of businessmen headed by Tony Ressier. The NBA sanctioned the sale sanctioned on condition that the new owners would commit to keeping the team in Atlanta, arraying fears that the team would be relocated to Seattle once it had changed hands. Many people felt that the bad blood between Levenson and Gearon and the fact that he had been opposed to Ferry’s appointment had been the cause of the fallout and blamed Gearon for instigating the whole scandal. The fact that Gearon recorded the conference call in which Ferry made the initial comments and that the author of the report from which he read was not revealed or sanctioned was interpreted in some quarters as indication of Gearon’s culpability.

Picture credit: USA Today.

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