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Staying On Message

Hawks Majority Ownder Bruce Levenson The man in the picture above is Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson. I tell you this now, because before Sunday, I had never heard of him. From all indications he seems to be a decent man. No different than most, and certainly not as cartoonishly villainous as his former contemporary Donald Sterling. That said, in the post-Sterling NBA landscape, Levenson’s e-mail comments and his decision to sell his majority stake in the team have been the dominant news story this week in a sport, almost actively ignoring its World Cup. What has been most disappointing hasn’t been Levenson’s comments themselves, but the refusal to deal with them in any substantive manner beyond surface level, headline driven narratives.

This really wasn’t supposed to be an article in the first place. I read the letter, mocked it’s stupidity in a Facebook post and went on with my Sunday. While far from surprising, when the curtain is pulled back on how businesses decisions are made, it’s instructive to call out bad practices and take advantage of an opportunity to have a broader conversation. Instead, I woke up Monday to unexpectedly animated arguments and think pieces from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jason Whitlock defending Levenson as a businessman and downplaying any racism on his part.  Now let me put this as clearly as I can; I have absolutely no problem with an owner of a franchise looking into all the avenues possible to expand his fan base and support, make things more palatable for as many people as possible, and in this case make his team’s games more desirable to greater numbers of white fans. That’s his fiduciary responsibility as a business man, and wringing every last dime he can out of the product is to be expected: no more, no less. I have zero problems with him diversifying the musical selections and halftime entertainment, wanting more balance on who’s featured on the kiss cam or even the makeup of the cheerleaders. As insignificant as those items are, if they’re part of the larger problem of perception he’s perfectly in his right to tweak them.

Where Levenson ran into trouble wasn’t maliciousness, as dangerous as it is too read intent from the outside, but rather the cowardice of his action. The ease with which he slipped into stereotypes and specious remarks decrying the “few fathers and sons at the games” when the crowd was 70% Black, or shots at the “latest arriving crowd in the league” (the Lakers might have something to say about that) did him no favors. But it was the specifics to which Levenson discussed the crowd demographics he had in mind that really put it over the top: 

“Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience…. 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…. Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games.”

To people like Whitlock and Jabbar, this is Levenson recognizing white racism, and simply reacting as a businessman to broaden the appeal of his product. And for the most part that’s accurate, the Hawks’ owner goes on to to say such sentiments are “racist garbage” and the perception of added danger near the arena is not borne out by any facts but merely fear of proximity to Blackness. The problem however, is Levenson became complicit in that cesspool of circular logic. By his own estimation, the Hawks’ Black ticket base had been cut almost in half from 70% down to 40, and yet he still found it four to five times too high. He floated the 15% figure from the Wizards’ crowds as a baseline, and openly wondered what else he could do to get there. Therein lies the difference between soliciting new fans, making it more desirable to white audiences, and an active quota system where you force Black patrons out in favor of white spectators. Again, I state I don’t suggest he did so with ill intent, but that is irrelevant and seems to be blinding people to the point.  Quoting from Albert Burneko’s excellent piece on Deadspin:

This is the logic behind redlining; behind the NBA’s dress code; behind Roger Goodell’s self-fetishization as the Hammer of Sports Justice. Black people and black culture are repulsive to whites; whites are more valuable than blacks because black money chases off white money; therefore black people and black culture must be contained so as not to impede our access to whites. This is the logic of systemic racism, distinct from but no better than personal distaste for black people. This is a seemingly reasonable person endorsing the idea that a dollar from a black person is literally worth less than a dollar from a white one, because the dollar from a black person carries an invisible tax: It drives away white people, while a dollar from a white person draws in more of them. In the hands of a business owner—translated into suggested changes to that business’s product, into his complaints to his underlings about, say, the number of black cheerleaders that business employs—it ceases to be an idea. It is the enforcement of disparity, the literal devaluing of black dollars: “Your actual ticket purchase is worth less to us than the hypothetical ticket sales we might get from racists by driving you away.”

Based on everything I’ve seen, I have no reason to believe Bruce Levenson is a bigot. Even with a few of the more problematic assumptions he sets forth, there doesn’t appear to be any animus and in many cases he provides societal factors that also contributed to them, but that does not matter. He chose to re-enforce racism on a systematic level and damage his Black patrons with the institutional power he has as the team owner. Whatever his personal beliefs, by going along with the notion that he needs to push out Black costumers (in Atlanta of all places, one of the highest concentrations of Black wealth in the country), he perpetuates the same cycle for the sake of appeasing a theoretical white audience that he hasn’t been able to woo by the on-court product and now is willing to try to sell the virtue of diminished Blackness. That’s the problem with structural racism, it’s so insidious it traps those who may mean well and pursue profit without willful malevolence. His sales pitch was no longer the product on the court, but rather the erasure of Blackness around it. “Business as usual” is the problem when that business has usually been run on the exclusion and exploitation of Black people. I explored that in more detail in the Donald Sterling article, and it’s instructive to note how much influence that case has had here. The headlines scream racism by another NBA owner, yet by contrast since the language is considerably more benign, there’s an attempt to diminish the impact of Levenson’s statements.

It’s that misappropriation of racism that gives rise to so many people defending his actions almost absentmindedly. Since Levenson had no hand in creating the racial stratification and prejudices they don’t fault him for playing by them, if they can even recognize them at all. By the dictates of that logic he’s just doing what he has to do to survive in the reality he works in, he’s not responsible for it.  This refusal to acknowledge responsibility gives a pass for continuing any and all racism because “that’s just the way it is.”  It’s the same justification for why slavery was allowed to continue for as long as it did, or any of the other unjust systems we’ve had to actively overthrow, and absolves any personal responsibility to affect p. As the owner of the team, and with all the power and influence that comes with that position, Levenson had the ability to enact legitimate progress. Instead, he chose to go with the flow and aligned institutional control to the ideology to those who sought to exclude African-Americans for comfort’s sake. Even with the best of intentions, inaction combined with structural power reinforces the worst elements of society. Levenson acknowledged as much in his statement of sale acknowledging, “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.” He failed that lesson, and those who are giving him a pass that even he himself isn’t taking, are failing it as well.

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