Watching like a Hawk
The rolling thunderstorm over the unveiled racial sentiments expressed within the Atlanta Hawks’ ownership and management ranks provides an opportunity to break the national stalemate over discussing race.
The blowback against the Hawks over an email and a meeting conversation are but one recent event proving that we aren’t yet at the promised land foreseen by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve come an admirably long way. But the reality that there are still two increasingly hardened, broadly divergent views on whether we’ve already crossed the finish line proves there’s work left to do. Cries of “race-baiting” on one side or “racist” on the other don’t alter that simple fact.
Which means America — and Atlanta — need a more-effective methodology to again begin to move the ball further on matters of race. So Atlantans should set to work. This city’s civic, political and business leaders long ago proved they could begin tough conversations around race and convert talk over time into tangible results for all involved. We need to do that again.
As with many hard tasks, starting may be the hardest step. Whites and blacks are each largely uncomfortable broaching the topic with the necessary level of honest, back-and-forth communication. Opening up oneself can lead to hurt feelings or misunderstandings at best — and open hostility or repercussions in workplace or social settings at worst. We have to somehow get beyond merely hollering at each other.
In the matter of the Hawks, that means dealing with a general manager who made derogatory accounts about the African heritage of a playing prospect, as well as co-owner Bruce Levenson who bemoaned in a long email a dearth of whites and oversupply of blacks filling the seats at Philips Arena.
What was racist, and what was just business? Those are the multimillion-dollar questions.
Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry’s, well, racist comments comparing a player of African descent to a duplicitous bazaar owner have been rightly condemned. The Hawks were correct to grant Ferry an indefinite leave . They likely face little choice other than to make that absence permanent at some point.
And co-owner Levenson fell under intense criticism this month for his 2012 email to Ferry that included gems like this : “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.”
Many saw only racism here. It’s apparent to us that, however impolitic Levenson’s typed sentiments were, he was focused on the age-old business tasks of demographics and marketing. No company succeeds without knowing who their customers are — and are not. All firms likewise work hard to woo their target audience. As Levenson inartfully wrote, race and income are often part of that mix.
Is that racist — or classist — on its face? We’d suggest the answer is more nuanced than some critics believe.
Levenson’s thoughts, in our view, show he didn’t understand our town. His email should have insulted Southern whites as much as blacks. Levenson may honestly be oblivious to why the phrase “Soul Food” is a rarity here, but a commonly used term up North. That’s because you’re equally likely to see Southern whites or African-Americans sitting down to a Sunday supper of fried chicken, candied sweet potatoes and collards. That isn’t often the case above the Mason-Dixon line.
That cross-cultural similarity, and others, defies his implication that blacks and whites here don’t interact much, or understand each other.
Levenson’s comment about the dearth of affluent blacks in Atlanta also shows an ignorance of this city that’s been a bedrock of black capitalism for 150 years.
Levenson was smart enough to write that “We need to realize that atl is simply different than every other city. Just adopting NBA best practices is not enough. We have to create our own.”
He got that part right. Now it’s up to the Hawks to build a leadership structure that puts them in position to capitalize on our town’s uniqueness. It’s up to the rest of Atlanta to demand — and then help them do — just that.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
‘Atlanta Way’ is best path forward
By Andrew Young
Atlanta has been my home for more than 50 years now. Like many, I chose this special place to build a life. It is the place where I have served, where I have worshipped and where I have applauded the exploits of many Atlanta heroes on the basketball court, the diamond and the football field.
If there’s one thing I love as much as this city, it is the teams that call it home. Much has changed since we secured our three major sports franchises in the 1960s, but the passion for the Braves, Falcons and Hawks has not dimmed.
When you love something, it has the power to break your heart. While failures on the court can cause some pain, it has been the issues off the court in recent weeks that have opened wounds long thought to be healed in our community.
I don’t believe that it is productive to focus on the comments that have brought controversy to the community of late. I will only say that the words expressed do not reflect the city I love and have no place inside any organization. Those that made the remarks are no longer a part of the Hawks, which is best.
I am proud to know that our local ownership group raised their hands when they heard divisive language inside the organization. They fully understood the impact those words would have on our city and this franchise. It takes men of courage to speak up when others don’t. While the process to get to this place may not have been pleasant, their voice and steadfastness has ensured that we will again have leadership in this organization that this community can embrace.
I have heard some say that recent events will cause coaches and players to stay away from the Hawks. I say to those who are skeptical of coming to Atlanta, don’t be. Come here and make a name for yourself. This town will embrace you long after your career is over. Just ask men like Henry Aaron and Dominique Wilkins. They will tell you that there is no better place to become a legend, to raise a family and no better community to call home.
If there is one thing I have learned in my time in our wonderful city, it is that there is an Atlanta Way. It is deliberate and distinct. When we have problems here, we don’t hide, we work as a team and tackle them head on. The events of recent weeks and the reaction of those in this community have made my faith in that belief even stronger.
So today I choose to look forward, not backward. I want the Hawks to recapture the heart of the Atlanta Way and that starts at the top. While a life in public service has not put me in the financial position to purchase the team, let me offer a small bit of unsolicited advice to whomever chooses to be a steward of our community asset — embrace this extraordinary city. See the diversity of Atlanta as its strength, not a hindrance that keeps seats empty. Spend time with those in the stands to understand why they have paid their hard-earned money to bring their family to a game. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. What you will learn is that this is a town that yearns for a winner and will support that winner like no other city in America.
Atlanta has been challenged and will come out stronger. It is the Atlanta Way.
Andrew Young is a former Atlanta mayor, ambassador to the United Nations and congressman.
Hawks working hard to step up their game
By Steve Koonin
Basketball is the ultimate team sport. But to the people of Atlanta, our organization hasn’t been a good teammate. We committed some fouls and our hand is raised to take responsibility.
Taking accountability and making changes is the right thing to do, but it’s not always easy. We want to do this the right way. While many outside the team asked for immediate meetings and public conversations, we believed we had to start internally. Before the media began covering our shortcomings, we hired Basic Diversity, the firm founded by Atlanta civil rights icon C.T. Vivian, to educate us and propose a path forward so that the mistakes we made in the recent past on issues of race will not be repeated. By the end of last week, every team executive will have completed intense diversity training, and we have committed to this training at all levels of the organization. The goal is clear: giving all our team members and fans in this richly diverse city the respect they deserve.
We have begun a second phase of our healing, which is to find ways to reconnect us with the city of Atlanta. We would like to thank Mayor Kasim Reed, community leaders and civil rights leaders who we have already spoken with and those we plan to speak with in the immediate future for their candor, concern and ideas. We have started this dialogue, one which we anticipate continuing, focused around two primary commitments: our focus on being a stronger organization and our focus on the community in which we play.
We will hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer. We will work to build, under this person’s leadership, a diversity council that will represent the community and inform and guide us to ensure we do not again make the mistakes we made in the past.
On the second commitment, we will begin activating a community-centric program, Building Bridges through Basketball, which will continue to be fine-tuned and informed by our conversations with community leaders. One element will be removing economic barriers from fans who want to celebrate and enjoy games being played in Atlanta. The energy of a Hawks victory in Philips Arena is an experience that all Atlantans should be able to take part in. To begin to address this , we are immediately offering $15 tickets for 1,500 seats at every Hawks home game. In our view, games should be a celebration of not only the sport, but of bringing the community of Atlanta together. It is about people first, and profits second.
Working with community leaders, we intend to invest in basketball courts around the city. We will work with the mayor and other leaders to pick communities all around town in which to build these courts, where we hope many positive memories and basketball experiences will shape future Hawks fans and leaders of Atlanta.
We are pleased to officially announce that we will be permanently honoring our franchise’s greatest player: Dominique Wilkins. He was a star both on and off the court and we will soon honor him with a statue outside Philips Arena. We see this as a living legacy — and a symbol of our re-commitment to excellence in the sport, engagement with our community, and a celebration for all of our fans.
We are moving forward, and we are doing so in the Atlanta Way. With a new owner in place, we will be stronger on the court and in the office. It is our pledge to work every day to make Atlantans proud.
Steve Koonin is CEO of the Atlanta Hawks.