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NBA's racism problems won't end with Hawks scandal

Bruce Levenson may have been clumsy enough to get caught emailing racially-insensitive comments to members of his inner circle, but he's surely not the only high-ranking NBA official to express similar views.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

If every Bruce Levenson exits the NBA, we're going to have a whole lot more turnover among the league's franchise owner ranks.

Whereas the case of Donald Sterling was, well, black and white, Levenson's situation comes in a couple shades of gray. In an email to GM Danny Ferry and two co-owners, Levenson -- the partner with the largest stake in the Atlanta Hawks -- threw out some undergrad-level business school theories about why white fans didn't buy season tickets at Philips Arena. While decrying the ignorant mindset of idiot fans who associate a black audience with crime, Levenson nonetheless offers up suggestions to capture that audience. All of the suggestions boil down to making Hawks games less black. (They also happen to be wrong.)

On one hand, Levenson's suggestions were clumsy and at times problematic. There's a really odd comment about Levenson not seeing "sons and fathers" at games amid his discussion of the higher-than-average proportion of black fans in attendance. There was his envy at the higher share of white fans at Washington Wizards games despite similar metropolitan demographics. And, of course, there's the matter of Levenson sticking his thumb in the eyes of loyal, paying black customers in an effort to drum up interest among nonpaying white fans.

But Levenson surely isn't the only franchisee to have these thoughts or even express them to his inner circle. Let's be real. This is a league that featured Rob Thomas WASP anthems during NBA Finals promos well into the 2000s.

And, of course, there is the dress code policy David Stern pushed through in 2005 to de-urbanize player fashion. The so-called Allen Iverson Rule. Inactive players or athletes participating in NBA functions have to wear business casual clothing. In one fell stroke, Stern reduced the opportunity for stars like Iverson, Paul Pierce and Jermaine O'Neal -- all critics of the policy -- to be photographed in throwbacks, snapbacks, chains and Timbas.

Wearing those clothes didn't make the players thugs, but racists buy ads too. So, in order to boost the NBA's bottom line, Stern had to appease his racist customers: both potential sponsors and season ticket holders. Which is exactly what Levenson discusses doing in his email: appeasing the majority demographic at the expense of the minority. The only apparent difference is that while both guys are lawyers, Levenson forgot the key lesson that you don't put anything you don't want out in the public on record, like in an email to a subordinate and two peers.

This has been the NBA's challenge since the 1970s: selling a black product to white audiences. Pro basketball has the highest rate of black players among major American sports and players are more visible (due to uniforms and there only being 10 guys on the court at once) than they are in the NFL and MLB. Yet the majority of the American population is white. What Stern's dress code and other policies over the years were concerned with is making the players look more like the league's customer base. If you cover up Carmelo Anthony's tattoos off the court, you might win a fan who'd otherwise cross the street when passing a young black man with ink. The potential for success doesn't justify the strategy, but that's been the league's modus operandi for decades.

Levenson probably isn't the only NBA official to have views on audience make-up and put it in writing.

Where Levenson went further is by insisting that the Hawks needed to make the cheerleaders, entertainment acts and -- crucially -- other fans look more like the audience he wanted to draw in. In a strictly business context, he wanted to transform his audience from a small black one to large white one. That he'd be doing this in a majority-black city in a business where the overwhelming majority of performers is black is gross.

But motive matters. Donald Sterling got into trouble because he was a racist scumbag who let enough bile dribble from his considerable jowls that he eventually got caught in the act of being horrible. Levenson was a struggling businessman looking for answers in all the wrong places.

Even more, Sterling's exit came from a groundswell outside the league office, with fans and players revolting, sponsors dropping out and other franchisees smacking down the scumbag. Levenson's exit has been an internal matter only. Twenty-four hours later, we don't know close to the whole story. There's a lot of weird stuff going on, like the apparently racist Luol Deng scouting report that touched off the whole ordeal. There's rampant speculation that unlike Sterling, Levenson wanted out anyways, so this issue wasn't and isn't going to court in all likelihood. It's a cleaner cut for Silver ...

... until the next email from a franchisee or a league official comes out. A common refrain was that Donald Sterling sure as spit wasn't the only racist team owner in the NBA. That's probably true. But it's absolutely the case that Levenson isn't the only NBA official to have these views on audience make-up, and he's almost assuredly not the only one to have expressed it in writing.

Adam Silver ought to thank his lucky stars he didn't have to try to force Levenson out, because that would have made for one sticky argument. One that could have thrust the policies of the Commissioner's Office itself onto center stage.


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