Bruce Levenson, the Hawks’ owner, has put the team up for sale after a two-year-old email drew widespread condemnation.Credit John Bazemore/Associated Press
“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.”
That was one of many offensive quotes that emerged a little more than a week ago from an email that Bruce Levenson, the owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, sent to his colleagues two years ago. That email — and an internal investigation — pushed Mr. Levenson, a longtime businessman, to apologize and put the team up for sale.
The email, which included the comment that the “kiss cam is too black” and expressed the need for white cheerleaders, set off a firestorm in the sports world and beyond.
It has also ignited an important, yet quiet — perhaps too quiet — conversation among leaders in corporate America and on Wall Street about both the singling out of certain demographic groups and the language used internally and externally. What is business and what is bias, subtle or otherwise?
Discrimination remains a real issue in the business world. Studies show that Wall Street, for example, long charged African-Americans and Hispanics higher interest rates on mortgages than whites. Wells Fargo paid a $175 million fine two years ago to settle accusations that it charged blacks and Hispanics more than others.
Newport Cigarettes still openly singles out African-Americans and has been accused of marketing to black youths as well.
Mr. Levenson’s email revealed a different form of discrimination. He appeared to be actively seeking to replace his predominantly black audience with a whiter crowd. “Even D.C. with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience,” he wrote.
Before we go any further on this sensitive topic, a little background:
Mr. Levenson self-reported his email to the NBA earlier this year. The note was intended to explain — or rationalize — why his team’s season-ticket and merchandise sales were so low compared with those of other teams. Mr. Levenson wrote, “I start looking around our arena during games and notice the following,” ticking off a list that includes “it’s 70 pct black,” “the cheerleaders are black,” “the music is hip-hop” and “there are few fathers and sons at the games.”
Mr. Levenson was quickly condemned in many circles, with some people describing his comments as worse than the racist rant of Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers and was barred from the N.B.A. for life.
Yet others suggested that Mr. Levenson’s remarks were simply those of a rational executive. That was the conclusion of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former N.B.A. star, who has long written about race.
“Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats,” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Time magazine’s website. “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?”
Autry J. Pruitt, a syndicated radio host, said he was initially furious when he read about the comments but changed his mind after he read the email in full. “For many black-owned small-business owners like myself, it sounded infuriating. Here was another rich, entitled white man using his business as a cover to demean the black customers who fueled the resurgence of his N.B.A. franchise,” he wrote in a column on TownHall.com. But after he read the email in full, he said, he concluded, “Although parts of it are uncomfortable to read, nothing struck me as racist or out of line.”
“Levenson’s sin was to recognize the fact that different groups of people have different levels of discretionary income to spend on pro basketball,” he added.
At minimum, Mr. Levenson’s comments were insensitive. At their worst, they were racist. (Oddly enough, in another part of Mr. Levenson’s email, he seems to acknowledge and almost criticize such racism. “On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around” the arena, he wrote. “I don’t know of a mugging or even a pickpocket 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.”)
The stands at an Atlanta Hawks game. The team’s owner drew outrage with an email on its relative lack of white ticket buyers.Credit
Whatever you think about Mr. Levenson’s remarks, they are a reminder of the challenge — and responsibility — companies have when seeking out customers based on income, race, religion or other demographic. In this day and age, companies can more sharply focus their marketing than ever before by taking advantage of web search and social media, where the amount of information about individual consumers is rapidly increasing.
So what’s the difference between singling out specific demographics and discrimination? It’s a fine line that keeps getting finer.
The former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch, Michael S. Jeffries, was vilified for his openness about his employment and marketing efforts. He said he hired only young, good-looking employees “because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that,” he told Salon. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
The co-founder of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, was forced to step down after he commented, “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” for his company’s yoga pants. Many women considered his comment offensive.
In certain circumstances, there is an argument to be made that the political correctness pendulum has swung too far. Certainly, Mr. Wilson’s comments were tactless, but I know of many companies that make clothing that I don’t fit in, and that may be a deliberate strategy, articulated or not.
Mr. Levenson’s remarks represent something much different. They were about race, not good looks. He later called his comments “inflammatory nonsense.” He added: “We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.”
The business world should take note.
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