Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defends Hawks owner Bruce Levenson

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Thoughtful guy and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is writing occasionally for Time.

During the Donald Sterling saga, Abdul-Jabbar penned a essay on the Clippers owner. Abdul-Jabbar wrote – and I agree – the outrage for Sterling’s recording was over the top, especially compared to the lack of outrage for Sterling’s more troubling racism.

Now, Abdul-Jabbar is chiming in on the Bruce Levenson scandal.

The whole article is worth a read, but here a few paragraphs that stuck out to me:

Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats. In the email, addressed to Hawks President Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations) the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music, the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90 percent blacks, kiss-cams focus on black fans, and timeout contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans.

Seems reasonable to ask those questions. If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias toward white contestants and cheerleaders? Don’t you think every corporation in America that is trying to attract a more diverse customer base is discussing how to feature more blacks or Asians or Latinos in their TV ads?

Sure, there are a few assumptions he makes that make me cringe a little: “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.” On the other hand, I have no evidence that he’s wrong on either count. Even if he is, the question still needed to be raised because racism is a realistic possibility as to why whites in Atlanta, Georgia may not be coming.

Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business. They should even be able to make minor insensitive gaffs if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent. This is a business email that is pretty harmless in terms of insulting anyone — and pretty fascinating in terms of seeing how the business of running a team really works.

I agree with Abdul-Jabbar that Levenson’s primary objective was maximizing profit, but I also see racism as well. Levenson isn’t just trying to increase fan support and revenue. He’s actively trying to reduce the percentage of black fans in order to change the demographic.

As he wrote in the infamous email:

Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.

And many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income which explains why our f&b and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games sales were nearly triple what they are at hawks games

Levenson himself admitted in his apology:

By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.

I find that summation accurate.

Yes, Levenson was, as Abdul-Jabbar said, acting primarily as a businessman. But in doing so, the Hawks owner also espoused a racist and harmful attitude. His business interests don’t forgive racism.