What the Bruce Levenson Case Says About Race, Money, and the NBA

Understanding why the Atlanta Hawks owner is selling his stake in the pro basketball team.


To understand the story about the owner of the Atlanta Hawks selling his stake in the basketball team after the disclosure of an email in which he urges team executives to hire "some white cheerleaders," remember this: it's not about race. It's about money.

The cases of Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, and of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling before him fit all too easily into the off-the-rack explanatory framework of racism. That bias is at the top of people's minds anyway these days because of the protests against the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

But the more accurate explanation is that these situations aren't as much about racism as they are about money—more precisely, the envy of people who have a lot of it by people who have less of it.

Don't believe me? Read New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden, who is so worked up about Levenson's comments and Sterling's that he urges a league-wide "investigation" to unearth "the racists, the sexists, the homophobes" among the National Basketball Association's owners and executives.

Rhoden quotes from Levenson's apology letter, which asserts, "we may all have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race." Then the Times columnist replies, "Perhaps. But we're not all multibillionaires whose wealth and power can transform dinner-table bigotry into large-scale policy and practices that affect the course of human events."

Got that? The problem isn't the bias, it's the billions. So concedes the Times columnist, in an impressive display of his own anti-billionaire bias.

Levenson's entire email is not without nuance. He himself is condemning the whites in Atlanta for being racist while at the same time suggesting that the team change some things to make them more comfortable: "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base. Please don't get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena back then. I never felt uncomfortable, but I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority."

The email says, "On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is … yet in our 9 years, I don't know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. 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."

There was a time when the response to these sorts of situations was humor, or humility. As the lyrics to a song in the hit musical Avenue Q go:

Everyone's a little bit racist, it's true
But everyone is just about as racist as you
If we all could just admit that we are racist a little bit
And everyone stopped being so P.C.
Maybe we could live in harmony

Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, who is black, writes in his new book Please Stop Helping Us, "when I see groups of young black men walking down the street at night I cross to the other side. When I see them on subways I switch cars."

The Levenson letter is no laughing matter, alas, for any black cheerleader who tried out but who was not hired because the owner ordered up some white cheerleaders. On the other hand, people whose genetic makeup doesn't suit them to a skimpy cheerleader uniform are already out of the running for the job, so perhaps there's a kind of poetic justice to the injustice of an otherwise qualified cheerleader getting turned down for a superficial reason.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a piece for Time, writes that Levenson's email isn't racist. "Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business," the former NBA star asserts.

Sizing up these cases involves making some distinctions. Is the alleged "racism" a matter strictly of impure thoughts, or does it spill over into hiring decisions or the treatment of employees or customers? Is the racism accusation surfaced or aired by someone else with a financial or personal motive of his or her own? Is the "racism" condemned uniformly and consistently, or only when the person displaying it is rich enough to own a pro basketball team?


NEXT: Family in Trouble for Bringing Squirrel Across State Lines

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  1. Is it me, or have the Afternoon Links not shown up yet?

    1. And here I have all these great quips and jokes ready to go!

      1. Go on…

      2. The funny Canadians all go to Hollywood to make a career in entertainment. The rest of the Canadians stay behind and bitch about what an evil place the US is.

        1. While genuflecting to their queen.

    2. I thought this was the afternoon links, and it’s just a really slow news day. In any event, Fist is still first.

    3. I wonder how many times Fist of Etiquette has hit F5 by now.

  2. I fail to see how this is racist. If the NHL worried that their sport was “too white”, no one would care. This is by far the dumbest thing yet in the sports race wars. I think he just wanted to sell anyway.

    Beyond that, blacks are 12% of the population and less than that of the country’s total spending power. If the NBA thinks they can have a business model of appealing to primarily just blacks, I wish them luck with that.

    1. Hockey has too many white guys from the Prairies.

      1. And Europe. /Don Cherry.

    2. Yeah, we see this with MLB going nuts over how many black Anglo players there are or aren’t.

      Mets fans’ suggesting that Omar Minaya preferred Hispanic players? Totes racist! Ignoring the overrepresentation of Hispanics to comment on the perceived underrepresentation of blacks? Socia justice, baby!

    3. Levenson’s comments were just about marketing to a particular demographic with the music and the entertainment in between game action. Not sure why he felt compelled to turn himself in.

      1. Because he wants to get rid of his share of the team. This is completely cynical on his part.

        1. He still didn’t need to do this to sell his team, but he may have decided to do so to avoid someone else releasing it, making him look worse than he currently does.

      2. As I said below, probably afraid of it getting released by someone else. Genuine guilt in the wake of the Sterling fiasco (I don’t think this email was nearly as racist as that for the record, nor does Levenson have the prior history Sterling does) might play a role, but only he knows if that’s true. I agree that much of it isn’t racist. But I don’t see how it isn’t racist to discriminate in hiring cheerleaders, selecting halftime contest participants, or putting people on the Kiss Cam, based on race.

    4. I’d hardly say that the NBA solely appeals to black people. That’s a bit hyperbolic.

      I don’t think he should sell in this instance if he doesn’t want to (I think he probably does, and probably came clean to avoid a bigger scandal by someone else releasing the email). He admitted to it himself and seems remorseful. I don’t think most of it is racist, and it seems in many parts to be more critical of white people in Atlanta for (in his opinion, at least) being racist. I do think he crossed the line when he suggested discriminating against black people when hiring cheerleaders, selecting people to participate in halftime challenges(seriously, who the fuck decides to go to an NBA game based on the race of halftime contest participants? Does he really think that’s impacting revenue?), and who gets on the Kiss Cam.

    5. Atlanta has way more than 12%, John.

  3. And fuck sports writers. Some of the nastiest self-righteous people out there.

    1. I hate Peter King the most.

      1. Wait. Are you telling me there 2 pieces of shit named Peter King?

        1. Yes I am:


        2. It’s a prerequisite that goes with the name, kind of like naming your kid Rasputin.

      2. So, you don’t have Mitch Albom writing in one of your locals…

      3. I would hate him the most if Charles Pierce was ever the victim of a Mitch Albom murder suicide.

        1. What about Skippy Bayless, or Jayson Whitlock?

          1. Steven A Smith. Is there a way to get them all on some kind of a cruise to the arctic? Or maybe on one plane?

            1. Smith is occasionally on point, at least. Bayless is simply a clown. Yes, Peter King and Chucky Pierce are turrble, but for my money Gregg Easterbrook is the King of Smug Fuckers. Sure, he’s against fleecing taxpayers for sports stadiums…so that’s 1 for 1,000,000,000,000,000.

  4. No afternoon links? Market failure!

    1. No, this is the P.M. links. It’s just a slow news day, is all.

  5. Drop Caterpillars?

    University of Florida doctors are warning about a dangerous type of caterpillar.

    According to, the fur of the Megalopyge opercularis or “puss caterpillar” is covered in venom and touching it results in intense pain, vomiting and convulsions.

    The caterpillars are known to fall out of trees, doctors said, according to the report.

    The pain reportedly is worse than a bee, jellyfish or scorpion sting.

    1. First pythons and now this. It is like land of the lost down there.

      1. And Florida Man.

    2. The inch-long larva is generously coated in long, luxuriant hair-like setae, making it resemble a tiny Persian cat…


      The ‘fur’ of the larva contains venomous spines that cause extremely painful reactions in human skin upon contact. The reactions are sometimes localized to the affected area but are often very severe, radiating up a limb and causing burning, swelling, nausea, headache, abdominal distress, rashes, blisters, and sometimes chest pain, numbness, or difficulty breathing.


    3. But they’re not Australian!

  6. Fuck the Hawks! Go Spurs Go!

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