ATLANTA– The Atlanta Hawks organization’s issues with race go beyond one inflammatory email or offensive comments on one conference call, the team’s CEO said, before promising fans that those systemic problems will be corrected.
“As an organization, we must own these shortcomings and failures,” Steve Koonin wrote in an open letter Saturday to his team, fans and the city of Atlanta. “… We should build bridges through basketball, not divide our community or serve as a source of pain.”
Koonin’s comments come a day after general manager Danny Ferry began an indefinite leave of absence tied to controversial comments he made in June about Luol Deng, then a prospective free agent player. And they occurred six days after the franchise’s owner, Bruce Levenson, announced he would sell his controlling interest team in light of a 2012 email that many derided as racist.
In the same announcement last Sunday setting the stage for Levenson’s exit, the NBA said that Koonin will oversee team operations during the ownership transition.
The Hawks CEO did not mention Levenson or Ferry specifically in his letter Saturday, nor did he delve into detail into their or possible other cases. But he did say that “we enough today, based on investigations conducted by the league, by external legal counsel on behalf of the team and information that has appeared in the media, that our shortcomings are beyond a single email, a single person or a single event.
“To the contrary, over a period of years, we have found that there have been inflammatory words, phrases, inferences and innuendos about race,” Koonin said.
“We as an organization did not correct these failures. We did not do the right thing.”
Koonin then laid out four key steps aimed at addressing the issue:
Having a “diversity consultant” examine the team and staff “and to train us to ensure something like this never happens again” Hiring a chief diversity officer Bringing in a new owner “who will work to cultivate an inclusive, respected and vibrant fan base” Continue meeting with local leaders “to ensure that our values reflect … the community in which we play and work”
Koonin ended his letter with an appeal to rally around the team’s players, rather than abandon them out of frustration.
“We ask our fans to continue to support our players as we all learn through this process — we should not punish them,” he said. “We aim to win as a collective team both on and off the court.”
CEO: Incidents ‘put a blemish on our team and our city’
The issue of race, and the prospect of alienating African-Americans, takes on added significance in Atlanta, given its history and makeup.
The home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, Atlanta was one of the few large Southern cities not to see major race-related disruptions during the 1960s as it earned the reputation as “the city too busy to hate.”
Today, Atlanta is led by a black mayor in Kasim Reed and its population is 54% African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. All but a handful of players on the Hawks roster are black.
In the 2012 email to Ferry that led to his giving up the team, Levenson estimated African-Americans made up 70% of those attending Hawks games and 90% of those in the Philips Arena bars. He said, too, that the team’s cheerleaders were black and hip-hop, rap and gospel music was likely to be heard in the arena.
“Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even (Washington) DC with its affluent black community never has more than a 15 pct black audience,” Levenson wrote.
The Hawks’ controlling owner then offered his thoughts on why more whites didn’t attend games: “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.
“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.”
Levenson then outlined steps to take, like asking for more “music familiar to a 40 year old white guy” and that camera shots and “the kiss cam” don’t focus as much on black fans.
He said changes had shifted the crowd makeup, by his estimates, to 40% African-American as of 2012. Still, Levenson insisted that African-Americans’ lack of “spendable income” and whites being uncomfortable in an arena with many blacks was still “far and away the number one reason our season ticket base is so low.”
The comments that led to Ferry’s going on leave weren’t directed at African-American fans, but one black player in particular — former Chicago Bulls and current Miami Heat forward Luol Deng.
In a June conference call discussing free agent options, Ferry said that Deng (who was born in South Sudan) was “not perfect. He’s got some African in him,” according to audio obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He also characterizes Deng as “a two-faced liar and cheat” who is “like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.,” according to a letter about the comments to Levenson written by J. Michael Gearon Jr., a minority owner of the Hawks.
Ferry has apologized, saying he was “repeating” words prepared by others. The audio of the call and a copy of the scouting report shows similarities, though Ferry did not read word-for-word from the report.
Koonin, in his letter Saturday, acknowledged that these and other, similar examples aren’t acceptable, especially in Atlanta.
“I am deeply saddened and embarrassed,” he wrote, “that this has put a blemish on our team and our city, which has always been a diverse community with a history of coming together as one.”