Bruce Levenson, controlling owner of the Atlanta Hawks, agreed to sell his stake in the franchise after a racially charged e-mail he penned in 2012 was discovered during an investigation by the team earlier this summer.
Questions abound, particularly whether Levenson truly self-reported the e-mail as team and league official statements suggest and whether this means the entire Hawks ownership group, or simply Levenson, will look to sell.
The Hawks are owned by Atlanta Spirit LLC — an investor group of seven partners of which Levenson is the majority owner.
The Hawks knew they had a ticking time bomb on their hands after discovering Levenson’s e-mail during a team-sponsored internal investigation, but sufficiently got ahead of the problem Sunday rather than watch a train wreck.
It was a coordinated departure, with Levenson, recently appointed Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver all releasing statements in concert Sunday. Public relations doesn’t get any tighter than that.
Both Levenson’s statement as well as Koonin’s condemnation, in which he calls Levenson’s e-mail “alarming, offensive and most of all, completely unacceptable,” are published side-by-side on the Hawk’s website.
Team websites are hosted on NBA.com, and while tended to during the year by an individual team’s media department, websites remain ultimately under the control of the league.
When news broke in April of Donald Sterling’s racist rant, the Clippers’ website — hosted on NBA.com — was blacked out with the team’s logo beneath the large headline “We Are One.”
It’s still early, but commissioner Adam Silver appears to have once again emerged as the winner in this latest scandal.
Leagues have historically had an interest in protecting their owners. After all, owners behaving badly reflects poorly on the league.
But in Silver’s new normal, racial divisiveness is not only reprimanded to the fullest but also falls under the league’s no-tolerance policy. Silver’s decisive action boosts the positive image created in the aftermath of recent ownership scandals.
Koonin also stands to benefit from the now-public saga in addition to Silver. Rather than face an uphill battle to save his team’s image, Koonin and the organization took swift action to boot Levenson (at a soon-to-be-named price, of course) and can point to Levenson, now public enemy No. 1, as an easy target for the organization’s woes over the past few years.
The story thus far has been that Levenson self-reported the 2012 e-mail after Donald Sterling’s remarks went public this summer.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, however, suggests a high-ranking league official with direct knowledge of the probe disputes that Levenson self-reported his e-mail.
This doesn’t deny that an investigation was taking place during the time of the Sterling Saga, but it does put into question how the e-mail was discovered by the league.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes that in June, the Hawks’ ownership group held a meeting to discuss free agency where GM Danny Ferry, reading a background report on a player, included an “offensive and racist” remark.
Rather than edit the comment, according to Koonin, Ferry read the comment verbatim, which ultimately caused the ownership group to launch its own investigation of the organization. Koonin and his fellow owners hired the law firm Alston and Bird who conducted 19 interviews and examined 24,000 documents.
During their investigation, the Levenson e-mail was discovered.
Ferry will also receive disciplinary action from Koonin for his private, inflammatory remarks.
It’s hard to believe that Ferry’s editorial discretion while reading a player’s scouting report was the sole impetus to launch an enterprise-wide investigation and pay a high-powered legal firm to do so.
As the sports business world directs its attention squarely on the Hawks, more revelations are sure to surface in the coming weeks — to the benefit or detriment of a team now in complete rebranding mode.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more departures occur within the organization or even at the ownership level. Koonin has a golden opportunity in front of him to clean house and overhaul an organization that for years has been plagued by fractured ownership and dysfunction at the top.
This opportunity may have even been manufactured by Koonin himself, who after two months on the job ordered an internal investigation on his team that later revealed the Levenson e-mail and ultimately made it’s way, self-reported or not, to the league offices.
After successfully turning around the TNT and TBS cable networks during his time at Turner, the very capable Koonin will try his skilled hand at a Hawks turnaround rife with challenges but certainly ripe for the taking.
With the departure of Levenson and the support of sports’ most popular commissioner, Koonin is definitely calling the shots.