Let's start here: Based on his controversial, allegedly racially insensitive internal email, Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson has far more in common with the writer of this column than disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Maybe Levenson has some documented, Sterling-like history of racial discrimination that has yet to be revealed. Maybe Levenson swiftly fell on the racial-guilt sword and offered to sell the team because he knows his life history won't survive a hypothetical external investigation led by the media and racial opportunists.
Or maybe -- and this is what I believe -- Levenson is a victim of toxic, internal-ownership dysfunction within the Hawks organization. And maybe the NBA is about to lose a good owner and a good man, one who had the courage to speak out publicly for the removal of Sterling, because few people have the courage to objectively and transparently judge his 2012 email.
NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a terrific piece for Time that defended Levenson. I'd like to add my voice. Levenson's email sounded very much like conversations I led with my radio staff in Kansas City years ago when I was trying to make my show more inclusive of white listeners and callers. As the lone black host at two different all-sports stations, black callers and listeners dominated my show. Black advertisers did not. The show was financially supported primarily by white businesses, and the largest demographic for listener growth was white males.
We had the task of maintaining a show that remained relevant with black listeners while being inclusive of white people. At my direction, we made a concerted effort to cultivate white males as regular callers to the show. When it came to on-air contests, radio remotes and special events, we made a special effort to be inclusive of white men. As someone who has an affinity and passion for discussing racial and cultural issues, I made it a point to only discuss those issues when they really mattered and not turn the shows into Malcolm X Unplugged. The music we played going in and out of commercial breaks was closely monitored and was intentionally peppered with the rock music I enjoy (a lot of Bon Jovi). We made it a point to use the contacts/sources I established as a newspaper sports columnist to invite a diverse group of expert guests.
My point: The show was black and highly inclusive and accessible for all people. We wanted to be the Oprah Winfrey of sports talk.
To its credit, radio station management never asked me to do any of these things. We did them because we wanted to compete in the ratings and we wanted to maintain healthy relationships with our advertisers. We accomplished our goals while serving a diverse audience.
If all of my instructions to staff during the seven years I hosted a radio show were written down and examined, I'd sound a lot like Bruce Levenson. Hell, I might sound much worse. The path to inclusion and diversity is not paved with precise, pretty words.
Levenson's email paints him as a man trying to be inclusive while trying to expand his business. In an effort to increase fan support, the Atlanta Braves will be moving to Cobb County, Georgia, the suburbs, in 2016, abandoning Turner Field and downtown Atlanta. It's called "white flight." Levenson was trying to avoid white flight.
I guarantee you the next owner of the Hawks -- regardless of race -- won't care. He'll overpay for the privilege of owning the team, and he'll look to maximize profits by any means necessary. If that means moving to the suburbs at the first possible opportunity, he will do just that. I bet the kiss cam, cheerleaders, season-ticket base and everything else will look much whiter in an Atlanta suburb.
And then the new owner of the Atlanta Hawks will write an email complaining that the cheerleaders, kiss cam, music and season-ticket base are too white, and the media and racial opportunists will applaud the new owner for being a champion of diversity.
Atlanta is Exhibit A in my belief that the marriage between hip-hop and sports is a failure. The NBA and Atlanta are supposed to be the ideal marriage -- a wealthy black city with a huge hip-hop legacy. You'd think the Hawks would have an enormous demand for season tickets. They've qualified for the playoffs seven straight years. But all you hear is the team "stinks" and why Atlantans shouldn't support bad ownership.
Is Levenson a bad owner? I don't think so. I do think he's part of a bad, dysfunctional ownership group.
Two different groups -- one based in Atlanta and one in Washington, D.C. -- share ownership of the Hawks. Levenson is the leader of the most powerful group, the one in our nation's capital. The group in Atlanta launched the internal investigation that resulted in Levenson's demise. Michael Gearon Jr., a member of the Atlanta group, wrote a carefully worded, threatening email to Levenson on June 12 that kicked off this controversy.
Gearon wanted general manager Danny Ferry fired because Ferry did say something racially insensitive during a teleconference with management and the ownership group in June. According to Gearon's email, which was obtained by Atlanta TV station WSB, Ferry described free-agent forward Luol Deng in a racist manner:
"He has a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he's like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out the back."
Gearon's email went on to explain that because he's a "minority partner with no effective say in decision-making" he had no choice but to contact a judge and a lawyer seeking advice on what to do about Ferry's racist description of Deng. Gearon warned Levenson that Ferry's words were likely to be made public and cause all sorts of trouble in the post-Donald Sterling era.
Calling Gearon's email "passive-aggressive" would be erroneous. The email was "aggressive-aggressive" and intended, in my opinion, to put Levenson in an impossible situation. Gearon's email sparked the internal investigation that led to Levenson's two-year-old email.
Hey, maybe Gearon and his Atlanta-based group want to buy the team from Levenson. Maybe the Atlanta-based group will fix all of the Hawks' problems without ever uttering an insensitive word.
Or maybe the Hawks will eventually move to Cobb County, next to the Braves.