Re-examining NBA racism campaign

The most intriguing part of this Atlanta Hawks story was never what happened, but what would happen next. That's why not even general manager Danny Ferry's indefinite leave of absence -- which followed Bruce Levenson's announcement that he would sell his stake in the team -- can be considered an end game or even a turning point. There needs to be simultaneous explanation from the NBA about why it has not vigorously pursued and identified the original source of the disparaging remarks about Luol Deng based on Deng's ethnicity and purged that person from the league.

Until that happens -- indeed, the fact that it has already taken so long for this to happen -- the implication is that there's a place in the NBA for those thoughts. Keep in mind what commissioner Adam Silver said while announcing his lifetime ban of Donald Sterling for that infamous conversation posted on TMZ: "Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league." The delay in action on the Hawks case makes it fair to ask whether they truly are.

"He's a good guy on the cover but he's an African."

Seeing the words in the intelligence report put together on Deng is actually worse than hearing Ferry summarize them while discussing Deng with other team officials. At least Ferry modified it a tad, saying, "He's a good guy overall, but he's not perfect. ... He's got some African in him. ... And I don't say that in a bad way."

But there's no other way for it to be interpreted than in a bad way, considering it was followed by a string of negative attributes that basically suggested Deng was a two-faced con man who would undermine a team behind the coach's back.

The sentence structure in the original report left no doubt that the author believed Deng's African heritage is reason alone to be wary of him. What the statement lacks in specificity (Africa is a continent of 11.7 million square miles made up of 54 countries and nine territories, from Algeria to Zimbabwe) it makes up for in ugly denigration. It's a slur, carrying with it the implication that Deng's birth in the Sudan and childhood in Egypt indelibly tainted him with a character flaw that no amount of adolescence in Britain or American collegiate education at Duke could erase.

The fact that Ferry felt the need to include it in his discussion and made no attempt to disclaim it or distance himself from it, even as his colleagues gasped and made references to Sterling and TMZ, doesn't speak well to his ability to impartially evaluate players in a league in which almost 80 percent of the athletes have "got some African" in them at various stages along the family tree. That's unacceptable for a person making personnel decisions. He is compromised for a period much longer than however long his "indefinite" leave lasts. This is probably just the least messy way for him to step aside until new owners can come in and hire a new general manager.

The looming changes at the top of the team masthead were probably the only thing keeping Ferry around anyway. Why go through the process of hiring another GM right now when the new boss is going to want his own people?

Ferry is just a piece being used in this game of thrones between the factions of Hawks ownership (a long, ongoing battle summarized as succinctly as possible in this Washington Post story). It's not that he was sacrificed in a noble effort to rid the NBA of racially insensitive language. Co-owner Michael Gearon wanted more control, saw Ferry as an obstacle and pounced on the opportunity to sink him with Ferry's own words. He warned the rest of the ownership that publication of Ferry's comments could be "fatal to the franchise."

Another member of the group, Steve Koonin, ran interference on Ferry's behalf for as long as he could, initially allowing him to remain after an undisclosed "team discipline."

But the Gearon letter triggered a review that unearthed Levenson's 2012 email that became his undoing. Levenson's attempt to grow the Hawks business by appealing to white fans had turned out to be bad for business because it generalized and demeaned the black fan base. The irony was that Levenson was one of the most outspoken owners about Sterling's need to go after Sterling's conversations with V. Stiviano. When Levenson announced the sale of his stake in the team, he noted, "I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true."

Except his own franchise showed a tolerance, unwilling to cut Ferry loose until the steady stream of leaked audio and documents made Ferry's continuation on the job untenable. The NBA has demonstrated even more tolerance -- and thus, less credibility in its campaign against racism -- by leaving the Hawks to their own devices and leaving the author of the most odious words unidentified and unpunished.