Sterling-Style Dilemma Hits Atlanta Hawks

BY DAVID STOKES

In the wake of an Atlanta Hawks co-owner deciding to sell his share of the National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise last week, due to self-described "inappropriate" comments pertaining to African-American fans of the NBA team, top Hawks managers who postponed meeting with local civil right activists, on Sept. 10, have now moved forward to otherwise salvage hometown fans base as decisions are being made by team owners whether a middle management change is necessary at the Philips Arena front office.

Reminiscent of the Donald Sterling-Los Angeles Clippers scenario of last April, in which Sterling, the former 82 year L.A. Clippers owner who spoke candidly to his mistress, with negative remarks toward African-Americans, and of her interacting with blacks at home games, et al., as well as his negative perceptions and thoughts on African-Americans, in general, the Atlanta Hawks' scenario and owners' thoughts of African-American fans, as outlined in two respective inflammatory e-mails by, initially, co-owner Bruce Levenson, in August 2012, and Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry, three months ago, in June, have raised the ire of the civil rights community, along with African-Americans, overall. While Levenson tendered his resignation as a co-owner, on Sept. 6, and has indicated wanting to sale his share of the team, the scab of racism has ultimately "fractured" not only the Hawks team, according to CEO Steve Koonin during an interview on local radio last week, but has thrust the issue of race into the faces of Atlantans and Americans once more, in general, upon the e-mails being disseminated to national media last week. While Levenson's e-mail, of the summer of 2012, is not for the faint of heart, some have described G.M. Ferry's descriptions of a Hawks player, in particular, and black fans, overall, during a conference call earlier this year, as most egregious, as well as more "abrasive and outrageous" and offensive toward African-Americans. In the June 12, 2014 e-mail penned by co-owner J. Michael Gearon, Jr. to Levenson, from the SSG Group, LLC, the Hawks' controlling partners/owners were "appalled" that Ferry "would make such a racial slur of a player, (Deoul Ling, being described as having 'a little African in him, but not in a bad way, but like a guy who has a nice store out front but still sells you counterfeit stuff out of the back,')." According to Gearon and the SSG partners, General Manager Ferry went on to otherwise describe the player, "and implied that all persons of African descent, as 'two-faced liars and cheats," and "we feel that under no circumstances should this have been said, much less by the GM of an NBA franchise during a major conference call. One of us can be heard reacting with astonishment. Our franchise has had a long history of racial diversity and inclusion that reflect the makeup of our great city," Gearon wrote. "GM Ferry's comments were so far out of bounds that we are concerned that he has put the entire franchise in jeopardy." Gearon goes on to entail the partners, meeting later with a "very well known and highly respected" African-American former judge of Atlanta, as well as a "highly regarded" employment discrimination lawyer. "They confirmed our fears and then some," Gearon relayed in the e-mail. The former judge, Gearon indicated, "put it succinctly" and stated that "any African-American who heard these comments would interpret them to mean all blacks are 'two-faced liars and cheats.' Also, the employment attorney said we as a team face significant exposure, possibly in court, but certainly in the court of public opinion, and within the league. She also described the fallout as 'devastating,' and we agree." Gearon concludes his e-mail to Levenson: "We believe these comments by GM Ferry were far worse than Donald Sterling's because they were not from a private conversation but in a business environment on a business matter, in front of a dozen or more people. If Ferry would make such a slur in a semi-public forum, we can only imagine what he has said in smaller groups or to individuals. We also note that the racial diversity of our management team has changed for the worse since Ferry took over as general manager. If Ferry's comments are ever made public, and we feel they may certainly be, it could be fatal to the franchise, and as life-long Atlantans with a public track record of diversity and inclusion, we are especially fearful of the unfair consequences when we eventually were thrown under the bus with GM Ferry. Therefore, we are calling on you, as majority owner and an NBA governor, to take swift and severe action against GM Ferry. Our advisors tell us that there is no other choice but to ask for Ferry's resignation, and if he refuses, terminate him for cause under his employment agreement." (At late presstime, on Sept. 11, GM Ferry stated to media outlets that he "had no plan to leave the Hawks as general manager.")

Nonetheless, the following e-mail is by Bruce Levenson, dated August 25, 2012, in which he is verbalizing "business/game ops" to otherwise determine what some issues may be with some fans with the Hawks, and to turnaround the situation either via NBA marketing suggestions or "creating additional ideas and points to increase the fan base via season tickets sales/holders," which led him to abruptly resign. Levenson begins in the e-mail, "Along with speaking of vendors, food, the arena and demographics of the fans, 'game ops' will be addressed after finishing the need to give some background: For the first couple of years we owned the team, I didn't much focus on game ops; then one day, a light bulb went off. When digging into why our fan base was so small, I was told that it is because we can't get 35-55 year old white males, and corporations, to buy season tickets, and they are the primary demographic for season tickets around the league. When I pushed further on the issue, folks shrugged their shoulders; then I started looking around our arena during games and noticed that (a) it's 70% black, (b) the cheerleaders are black, (c) the music is hip-hop, (d) it's 90% black at the bars, (e) there are few fathers and sons at the games, and (f) in after-game concerts, they are either hip-hop or gospel (artists)." Levenson continues to GM Ferry, "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites, and there are simply not 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 and I never felt uncomfortable, but I think Southern whites simply were not comfortable being in the arena, or at a bar, where they were in the minority. On fan sites, too, I'd read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips Arena—yet, in our nine years, I don't know of a mugging or even a pick-pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place, I think it is code for 'there are too many blacks at the games'. I have been open with our executive team about these concerns—and have told them I want some white cheerleaders, and while I don't care what the color of the artist is, I do want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy, if that's our season tickets' demographic. I've also balked when every fan picked from the crowd to shoot shots in time-out contests is black. I've even bitched that the 'kiss cam' is too black. Gradually, things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is now 40% black and that our bars are still overwhelmingly black. This is a sensitive topic, but sadly, I think it's far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low. And many of our black fans do not have the spendable income which explains why our food and beverage and merchandise sales are so low. At the white Atlanta Thrashers games, sales were nearly triple what they are at Hawks games (the extra intermission there though explains some of that but not all). Plus, regardless of what time a game starts, we have the latest arriving crowd in the league; it often looks and sounds empty when the Hawks players take the floor. In the past two years though," he continues, "we have created a section of rowdy college students that has been a big plus, and we do a lot of very clever stuff during time-outs to entertain the crowd. Our 'kiss cam' is better done than any in the league. We manufacture a lot of noise but because of the late arriving crowd and the fact that a lot of blacks don't seem to go crazy cheering as whites, the player intro. is not great. Therefore, I think we need a committed and, perhaps, a incentivized fan club. We need to realize that Atlanta is simply different than every other city; just adopting NBA's best practices is not enough; we have to create our own. I look forward to other thoughts and suggestions from others. Signed, 'Best, Bruce.' " The e-mail was also cc'd to fellow co-owners Todd Foreman and Ed Peskowitz.

In another late-breaking development with the scandal, as the Rev. Markel Hutchins, Rainbow PUSH Coalition's Janice Mathis and Joe Beasley of the Southeast regional office, the Urban League of Atlanta's Nancy Fluke Johnson, SCLC Ga. state president Rev. Sam. Mosteller, the Rev. Gerald Durley, NAACP/Atlanta chapter president Rev. R.L. White and others gathered at Philips Arena, last week on Sept. 10, to meet with Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, they were ultimately rebuffed at the office entrance—after being advised the evening before, upon management's request to cancel the meeting for a later date. "We look forward, at a later date, to speak with the (activists) ... as we work toward having our community (continuously enjoy the Hawks)," Koonin said in a statement (Sept. 10). Additionally, national media reports indicate that retired Hawks player/now Hawks VP Dominique Wilkens has been "pre-approved" toward possible ownership of the team. (NBA officials in New York City provided no response by late presstime on Wilkens' possible team ownership.)


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Falcons Fans Encouraged To Let Marta Be Their Designated Driver

CHICAGO—Miller Lite is headed to Atlanta to bring its flagship Free Rides program to Falcons fans. Teaming up with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the Original Light Beer will provide safe and free rides to the Georgia Dome for fans cheering on the Atlanta Falcons in September. In partnership with United Distributors, Miller Lite will give away 15,000, round-trip Breeze tickets to Falcons fans traveling through select MARTA stations on Sunday, September 7, and Thursday, September 18.

“The best play of the game is when fans plan ahead for a safe ride home,” said MillerCoors Responsibility Commerce Manager Diane Wagner. “At MillerCoors, we believe that drunk driving is 100 percent preventable. We encourage Falcons fans heading to the stadium to let MARTA be their designated driver and take advantage of the Breeze ticket from Miller Lite.” ?

Miller Lite and Atlanta Falcons representatives will hand out free Breeze tickets on Sunday, September 7, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and Thursday, September 18, between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. at the H.E. Holmes, Indian Creek, College Park and Lindbergh MARTA stations. Additional route and schedule information is available by visiting www.itsmarta.com.

“As a transit system, our top priority is always the safety and security of our customers,” said Chief Wanda Dunham of the MARTA Police Department. “This partnership provides an additional layer of safety to thousands of Falcons fans who recognize the importance of behaving responsibly and obeying the law whether they’re riding MARTA or driving home after the game.”

“MARTA is a safe, easy and convenient way for our fans to get to and from home games, especially this season as we adjust to the new traffic and parking landscape surrounding the Dome,” said Atlanta Falcons President & CEO Rich McKay. “We’re excited to join Miller Lite and the Free Rides program in making safety a priority and reminding Falcons fans to take advantage of the valuable service MARTA provides.”

“As members of the Atlanta community for 75 years, we’re proud to partner with Miller Lite and MARTA to help prevent drunk driving and help Falcons fans celebrate safely,” said Doug Hertz, United Distributors President and CEO.

Miller Lite Free Rides will also be offered in Philadelphia on Sunday, September 7, in conjunction with the Eagles home opener. Since the program’s inception, Miller Lite Free Rides has provided safe rides to more than 4.3 million people in more than 16 communities. For more information, visit www.MillerLiteFreeRides.com.

Through its diverse collection of storied breweries, MillerCoors brings American beer drinkers an unmatched selection of the highest quality beers steeped in centuries of brewing heritage. Miller Brewing Company and Coors Brewing Company offer domestic favorites such as Coors Light, Miller Lite, Miller High Life and Coors Banquet, as well as innovative new products such as Miller Fortune. Tenth and Blake Beer Company, our craft and import division, offers beers such as Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy from sixth-generation Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company and Blue Moon Belgian White from modern craft pioneer Blue Moon Brewing Company. Tenth and Blake also operates Crispin Cidery, an artisanal maker of pear and apple ciders using 100 percent fresh-pressed American juice. The company imports world-renowned beers such as Italy’s Peroni, the Czech Republic’s Pilsner Urquell, Canada’s Molson Canadian and the Netherlands’ Grolsch. MillerCoors also offers pioneering new brands such as Redd’s Apple Ale, Batch 19 Pre-Prohibition Lager, Third Shift Amber Ale and Smith & Forge Hard Cider. MillerCoors seeks to become America’s best beer company through an uncompromising promise of quality, a keen focus on innovation and a deep commitment to sustainability. MillerCoors is a joint venture of SABMiller plc and Molson Coors Brewing Company. Learn more at MillerCoors.com, at facebook.com/MillerCoors or on Twitter through @MillerCoors.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the 9th largest transit system in the United States, providing more than 400,000 passenger trips every weekday and roughly 130 million trips annually. Its member jurisdictions include the City of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties. MARTA operates a 38-station, 48-mile rapid rail system. It also has 93 fixed bus routes and provides Mobility (paratransit) service. MARTA accounts for an estimated $2.6 billion in economic activity statewide each year and supports about 24,000 jobs


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