Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced his intention to sell the team this past weekend based on a “racially insensitive” email he sent to members of the team’s management over two years ago that addressed the issue of attracting more white fans.  Levenson was one of the most vocal critics of Donald Sterling’s racist rant (blogged about here).  Levenson self-reported the email a couple of months ago and the NBA was in the middle of investigating it when Levenson announced his intention to sell the team.  The email opined that the largely black fan base scared away more affluent white fans.  It suggested the team hire white cheerleaders, play less hip hop music, and make sure to feature white fans on the “kiss cam.”  (Click here for the full email).

Levenson’s email purported to disagree with the stereotyping he opined white fans were engaging in, stating “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.” Critics say Levenson’s discussion of the issue was itself racist.  Supporters say Levenson shouldn’t be compared to Sterling, who espoused his own racist views.  Whichever side you come out on, it’s clear that race is an emotionally charged issue in the NBA (and in all areas of society).  What is a responsible business owner (and other senior levels of management)  to do?  Tread very carefully.  Don’t adopt racially-based stereotypes.  And certainly don’t make business decisions based on them.  Remember, customer preference is never a defense to a claim of discrimination.

bruce levenson