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September 9, 2014 at 6:09 AM

NBA gaffe 2.0 may help Seattle get a team, but won’t improve race relations

Danny Ferry, Hawks President of Basketball Operations and GM

Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson. (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Johnny Crawford)

Seattle is stirring about another prospect for regaining professional basketball.

This time the inkling comes from Atlanta, where majority Hawks owner Bruce Levenson is selling his controlling interest in the NBA team after he acknowledged sending emails questioning the team’s economic viability because of its predominantly black fan base.

Specifically, Levenson worried that “the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base.”

On the surface, it sounds just like former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling expressing a personal distaste for racial minorities. In response to the cultural backlash, the NBA forced Sterling to sell the team last month to Seattle businessman Steve Ballmer.

But Seattleites should resist the temptation to paint Levenson with the Sterling brush, no matter what affect it has on repatriating that NBA franchise.

Sterling expressed personal animus, while Levenson engaged in an admittedly objectionable internal discussion about his business.

His sin is reminiscent of former odds maker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder’s career-ending observation that black athletes were faster because their slave ancestors were bred for physical prowess. Snyder’s conclusion can be debated, but slave owners’ attempts to breed physically powerful slaves cannot.

The observation was cringe-worthy in 1988 when Snyder said. It’s cringe-worthy now. But it’s a cringe-worthy fact.

Then as now, it was much easier for the nation to turn into a bloodthirsty mob and attack the truth-teller than to confront the discomfort he caused by discussing facts.

The same argument could be made of Levenson’s thorny business-thinking.

A pro sports team situated in a city like Atlanta that has a black majority will likely have a predominantly black fan base. The question comes when examining whether that fan base – made up of a demographic that’s been economically and socially oppressed – can provide the same local revenues as cities with more affluent white majority populations.

The Hawks ranked as the fourth least valuable NBA franchise earlier this year, partially because it lost $3.6 million last year before taxes.

The team earns $11 in revenue for each fan, according to Forbes. In comparison, the San Antonio Spurs – the current league champion and 10th most valuable NBA team – generates $58 per fan in a Latino majority city. Only Ballmer’s Clippers has worse fan revenue than the Hawks – $10 each.

The fan revenue relationship to race is debatable. But the Hawks’ bottom line is not. So it’s understandable for a business owner to explore even misguided notions about why his or her business is suffering.

If they’re wrong, or their plans for the community asset are distasteful, the market will say so.

But the all too typical outrage to Levenson’s frank racial talk tells a different tale and provides a singular lesson: don’t talk about race – even privately.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said as much in a 2009 Black History Month speech: “In things racial, we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

It would be cowardly to act as though race is not part of American thinking, or to ignore race when it surfaces.

A brave society, however, would embrace such opportunities.

At their core, the Levenson and Sterling episodes are not sports stories. They’re not even business stories. They are stories about this society.

Rather than rushing to judge, and causing resentment in some sectors, the earnest among us should use the situation to have an honest conversation about race – whether Seattle gets an NBA team or not.

It’s uncomfortable learning. But in matters of race, there is no other kind.

Comments | Topics: bruce levenson, donald sterling, hawks


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