Latest NBA owner scandal: Racism or ‘just business’?

Just a few months after a racist rant forced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of the National Basketball Association, another NBA owner is voluntarily selling his team after an allegedly racist email surfaced.

In the August 2012 email, Bruce Levenson suggested African-American fans had scared away white fans, the New York Times says.

“I think Southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority,” Mr. Levenson said in his email, pointing out that he had earlier told the executive team that he wanted “some white cheerleaders” and “music familiar to a 40-year-old white guy,” and that he thought “the kiss cam is too black.”

The situation is another embarrassment for the N.B.A., which is trying to move beyond its protracted conflict with Donald Sterling, who was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers this summer after the emergence of an audio recording in which he made disparaging remarks about blacks.

It has made vivid again the outlines of racial division that exist in the N.B.A. — particularly among its owners, who are overwhelmingly white, and its players, a majority of whom are black — even as the league has distinguished itself as a leader among American professional sports in confronting diversity issues.

That a racial issue came to the fore in Atlanta, long been seen as a center of black culture, is particularly striking.

Racist? Not according to former NBA MVP and hall of famer Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. Writing today on, Abdul-Jabbar says it’s “misguided white guilt.”

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?

Back when the original Law & Order first launched, there was a cast shake-up, adding more females, reportedly in an effort to attract more women viewers. MTV shows like Finding Carter and Teen Wolf can’t get through an emotional scene without a pop song coming in to sing to the viewer what they should be feeling because that’s what their demographic wants. Car companies hire specialized advertising agencies to create ads to appeal specifically to women, blacks, and Latinos. That’s business.

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,” he says.