The racial attitudes of the Atlanta Hawks front office look worse with every passing day. On Monday night, a report from WSB-TV in Atlanta elaborated on racist comments attributed to general manager Danny Ferry and cast outgoing owner Bruce Levenson's decision to sell his controlling interest in the franchise in a new light. The news doesn't just pile on to the mess in Atlanta — it raises questions as to whether Ferry will eventually be forced to leave the team, too.
On Sunday, Levenson announced that he would sell his interest in the Hawks due to the revelation of an email in which he claimed a desire to reach out to affluent white fans and avoid various associations with the team's black fans. On Monday, Yahoo's own Adrian Wojnarowski reported that this email had only received attention after one of the Hawks' other owners launched an investigation into the franchise's racial culture following racist comments made by Danny Ferry during a conference call regarding free agent forward Luol Deng, who signed with the Miami Heat in July. Ferry was quoted as saying that Deng had "some African in him" in reference to his being "not perfect," although he also said the comment was not meant "in a bad way," which seems impossible given the content.
The WSB-TV report throws the actions of both Ferry and Levenson into a harsher light. In a letter obtained by the station, minority owner Michael Gearon, Jr. calls on Levenson to discipline Ferry. Here are a few key passages:
During the call, which we recorded so that notes could be made for our partners unable to participate live, our GM Danny Ferry discussed player personnel issues at some length. With respect to one potential free agent, a highly-regarded African-American player and humanitarian, Ferry talked about the player’s good points, and then on to describe his negatives, stating that “he has a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out the back.” [...]
We were appalled that anyone would make such a racist slur under any circumstance, much less the GM of an NBA franchise on a major conference call. One of us can be heard on the tape reacting with astonishment. Our franchise has a long history of racial diversity and inclusion that reflect the makeup of our great city. Ferry's comments were so far out of bounds that we are concerned that he has put the entire franchise in jeopardy.
As a minority partner with no effective say in decision-making, we were somewhat at a loss what to do next. So we consulted this week with two attorneys, one a very well-known and highly respected former African-American judge in Atlanta, and the other a highly regarded employment discrimination lawyer. They confirmed our fears and then some. The former judge put it pretty succintly, saying that any African-American who heard the comments would interpret them as meaning "all blacks are two-faced liars and cheats." The employment attorney opined that we as a team face significant exposure, possibly in the courts, but certainly in the court of public opinion, and, as we all know, within the league. She described the possible fallout as "devastating." We agree. [...]
If Ferry's comments are ever made public, and it's a safe bet to say they will someday, it could be fatal to the franchise. All of our partners have worked and spent a lot of money not just to make the Hawks winners, but to make our city and region proud of the organization. As lifelong Atlantans with a public track record of diversity and inclusion, we are especially fearful of the unfair consequences when we eventually get thrown under the bus with Ferry.
We are calling on you, as majority owner and NBA Governor, to take swift and severe action against Ferry. Our advisors tell us there is no other choice but to ask for Ferry's resignation, and if he refuses, to terminate him for cause under his employment agreement.
Gearon's letter also includes reference to the then-ongoing Donald Sterling controversy, viewing Ferry's comments as even worse because they occurred in a formal business environment rather than in informal conversation in a home. The fears expressed in this letter are related to the Sterling case, as well, because Gearon (formerly the Hawks' primary owner) envisions a potential future in which he, Levenson, and the rest of the ownership group loses the franchise due to NBA intervention. He even predicts the eventual release of Ferry's comment on Deng, which has of course now occurred.
There has been some question as to whether assessed Ferry assessed Deng in this way himself or simply read them from a report prepared by another employee, but the difference is negligible in terms of how it reflects on Ferry and the organization. As general manager, Ferry should be expected to create a work environment in which these racist opinions are not allowed. At the very least, he should be able to identify that they should not be shared with the team's owners or should be followed immediately (i.e. during the meeting) with an apology. Not doing so is itself an act of prime racial insensivity, regardless of the comments' origins.
Meanwhile, Levenson's decision to sell his interest in the team now looks motivated not only by his own comments, but also his inability to act on Ferry at a time when his colleagues had expressed dissatisfaction and warned of potential lawsuits that would put their control of the franchise in jeopardy. As noted by Wojnarowski in his prior report, Hawks CEO Seth Mookin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Ferry had been disciplined for his action but would remain in his position as general manager. If Levenson has now been successfully pressured to sell the team due to for comments that can at least be interpreted as following some sort of business logic (which, under further examination, is also racist), then why wouldn't Ferry receive equivalent punishment? The inability to act stands as a failure to take the problem seriously in a way that suggests a lack of proper leadership. Levenson's 2012 email has turned from an isolated incident into a sign of deeper issues.
It remains to be seen how this latest revelation of information will affect Ferry's future with the team or the story as a whole, but it's clear that the entire NBA, including its fans, must take stock of its racial attitudes and habits. Luol Deng is a widely admired player and man who earned the league's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award this past season, but these comments would be unacceptable even if he were a notorious malcontent. In this meeting, Ferry failed to meet basic standards of human decency. Why wouldn't Gearon be this dissatisfied and concerned?
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