TIME NBA

Donald Sterling Withdraws Lawsuit Against the NBA

The NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life for "deeply offensive and harmful" racist comments that sparked a national firestorm. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined him a maximum $2.5 million dollars and called on other owners to force him to sell his team
The NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life for "deeply offensive and harmful" racist comments that sparked a national firestorm. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined him a maximum $2.5 million dollars and called on other owners to force him to sell his team ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images

Sterling will no longer pursue his case against NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Sterling's wife Shelly, which accused both parties of fraud and of inflicting "severe emotional damage"

Former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has dropped one of his two lawsuits against the NBA, according to the Los Angeles Times‘ Nathan Fenno.

Sterling will no longer pursue his case against NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Sterling’s wife Shelly, which accused both parties of fraud and of inflicting “severe emotional damage” during his forced sale of the team earlier this year. The move frees up Sterling to pursue his other suit against the NBA, an antitrust suit that seeks more than $1 billion in damages.

MORE: NBA Atlantic Division Preview: Can the Raptors repeat as division champs?

“We believe that we can more efficiently address all the issues in our pending federal action,” Sterling’s attorney Bobby Samini told the Times Monday.

The news comes on the same day that a judge threw out the defamation lawsuit of Sterling’s mistress V. Stiviano against Shelly Sterling. Judge Richard Fruin said Stiviano could produce no evidence Shelly Sterling defamed her. Shelly Sterling called Los Angeles Police to Donald’s home earlier this month, indicating there had been a break-in at the home. Responding officers found no evidence of a break-in, however, and instead found Donald Sterling entertaining Stiviano.

This article originally appeared on SI.com

TIME Sports

The Sacrifice LeBron James’ Teammates Make to Play Alongside Him

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a free throw during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Cintas Center on October 15, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Joe Robbins—Getty Images

David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University.

Playing with the Ohio native means giving up valuable points in the game's bigger picture. Is it worth it?

The NBA season is almost underway, but winning games is not all that basketball players think about on the court. There’s another game within the game.

To understand this second game, consider a recent comment from Kevin Love. This past off-season, Love left the Minnesota Timberwolves for the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he’ll play with LeBron James. Although playing with LeBron was Love’s choice, he also notes it comes with a “sacrifice,” Love said. “I think it’s going to have to be an effort throughout the entire team to do what’s best for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And we don’t know what that is really yet. But I’m going to do what’s best for this team to win, because at the end of the day that’s what we want, is to win.”

To understand what Love means by “sacrifice,” let’s think about some recent comments from Chris Bosh. For the past four years, Bosh was LeBron’s teammate in Miami. Across these four years, Bosh was paid $67.1 million and won two NBA titles. To put that in perspective, in the previous four seasons Bosh was paid $46.9 million and saw his team win a total of just three playoff games (and not one playoff series). Despite this record, Bosh argued he essentially went hungry playing with LeBron:

“You just get your entree and that’s it. It’s like, wait a minute, I need my appetizer and my dessert and my drink, what are you doing? And my bread basket. What is going on? I’m hungry! It’s a lot different. But if you can get through it, good things can happen. But it never gets easy. Even up until my last year of doing it, it never gets easier.”

Bosh’s comments were referring to — and this is also the focus of Love’s comments — shot attempts and scoring totals. With LeBron as a teammate, Bosh averaged 13.0 field goal attempts and 17.3 points per game. In the four seasons before coming to Miami, Bosh averaged 16.0 field goal attempts and 22.9 points per game.

Remember, Bosh got to win in Miami. And he got paid more money. But he went “hungry” because his shot attempts and scoring declined. And Love – who averaged 17.1 field goal attempts and 23.5 points per game in the last four years in Minnesota – expects that he will also “sacrifice” shot attempts and points in playing with LeBron.

The academic research makes it clear why players should care about shot attempts and scoring. Published studies show, of all the box score statistics, points scored (per minute or per game) is the most important determinant of:

A similar story is told when looking at how much playing time a player receives. The rules of the game indicate that the primary box score statistic dictating minutes is personal fouls. But according to Stumbling on Wins (a book I co-authored with Martin Schmidt), of the remaining box score stats, it is points per minute that primarily determine how often a player actually is on the court.

And despite Bosh’s recent experience, player pay is also about scoring. A large collection of academic studies have shown that points scored – more than any other box score statistic – dominates how much money an NBA player receives. In sum, it seems that every evaluation a player faces in basketball is dictated by how many points the player scores. So it’s not surprising that players regard it as a “sacrifice” when they are asked to score less.

It should be emphasized, though, that a player’s production of points isn’t the same as his production of wins. Wins in the NBA are determined by the team’s ability to gain and keep possession of the ball (i.e., turnovers, steals and rebounds) and the team’s ability to convert those possessions into points (i.e., shooting efficiency).

Scoring totals are certainly increased by a player’s shooting efficiency. But as Bosh and Love know, scoring totals are also determined by shot attempts. And this is where the game within the game is played. Shot attempts are a finite resource and are generally not “created” by players. If fact, the numbers suggest that these attempts are really just “taken” from teammates. One of my favorite examples illustrating this story is what happened when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in 2011. With Anthony, the Nuggets averaged 80.0 field goal attempts per game, with Anthony taking 19.3 of these attempts. Once Anthony went to the Knicks, the Nuggets averaged 82.2 field goal attempts per game (and actually saw their shooting efficiency increase).

A somewhat similar story is told when LeBron left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. In the 2009-10 season – with LeBron on the roster – the Cavaliers averaged 77.9 field goal attempts per game. Without LeBron the next season, the Cavaliers averaged 81.1 field goal attempts per game. Unfortunately for Cleveland, although the team shot more without LeBron, the team’s shooting efficiency also declined significantly.

So without LeBron, the Cavalier players got to take more shots. But they also won 42 fewer games. Much of this can actually be traced to LeBron. Not only does LeBron produce wins by shooting efficiently, he also is a very good passer. And these passes enhance the shooting efficiency of his teammates (this is something Anthony does not do as well).

That means that when you play with LeBron, you get to win more often. But because a player loses shot attempts to LeBron (his career average is 19.9 field goal attempts per game), his teammates give up shot attempts and scoring.

All of this highlights the game within the game in the NBA. Yes, players prefer winning to losing. But players are also rewarded for scoring. Since a team’s shot attempts are finite, players are also competing with each other for opportunities to score. When that competition is lost, players are unhappy. And this is true even if a player is paid millions and wins titles.

It should be emphasized that the second competition – over shot attempts – can undermine a team’s ability to win the first competition (i.e., win the game). Passing the ball helps a team win. But since players are rewarded most for scoring, they actually have an incentive to pass less. So next time you see an NBA star launch an ill-advised shot rather than make the obvious pass, you should remember: players are not just rewarded by winning games, they are also rewarded when they win the other game within the game.

David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the lead author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins and continues to serve on the editorial board of both Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Business

Why You Can’t Find the Baseball Playoff Game on TV

Baseball Matt Carpenter
St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Carpenter hits an RBI single during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Milwaukee on Sept. 7, 2014. Morry Gash—AP

Big events, like the final games of the Major League season, are moving to harder-to-find cable networks. And cost of your cable bill is only getting biggger

At a Bay Area retirement community this past Monday, a group of elderly baseball fans gathered in a room to watch their San Francisco Giants take on the Washington Nationals in the National League playoffs. One problem: the game was nowhere to be found on the TV. The MLB Network, a league-owned cable outlet that requires a special subscription in many areas, was airing the game. The old folks were out of luck, until a worker called the cable company for a quick fix. “An associate and I were able to negotiate a deal (probably not such a good one) to get the game and the channel instantly,” a worker at the retirement community told the San Francisco Chronicle, “for an additional $18/month.”

These retirees weren’t alone: the Chronicle reported that its sports desk fielded over 150 calls from fans trying to find a playoff game on TV. The migration of sports programming away from free TV is nothing new. But now even the crown jewels are on cable. For the first time ever, the bulk of baseball’s two league championship series will air on cable channels. TBS will carry the American League Championship Series between the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, which starts Friday; Fox Sports 1, the network Rupert Murdoch launched in August 2013 to compete with ESPN, will handle Games 2-5, and Game 7, of the National Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, which starts on Saturday. The Fox network will broadcast Game 1 and Game 6.

The baseball playoffs have moved way down the dial. I, for one, never thought I’d be watching a league championship series on Channel 99, home of Fox Sports 1 in my New York City neighborhood.

TBS broadcast the Final Four national semifinal games last season, will do so again this coming season, and will add the title game in 2016. The Super Bowl still rotates between CBS, NBC, and Fox: the Super Bowl of college football, the championship game of the new College Football Playoff, will be on ESPN. The sports cable boom isn’t going anywhere: on Monday, the NBA announced that it extended its rights deal with ESPN and TNT through the 2024-2025 season. These networks will pay the NBA a combined $2.66 billion a year, almost triple what they pay in the current contract.

Such lucrative agreements fatten the wallets of players and owners. But they do consumers no favors; they’re driving up the cost of cable. An FCC study shows that the average monthly cable bill for expanded basic service grew 30%, to $64.41 between 2008 and 2013. According to SNL Kagan, a media research firm, sports networks account for 40% of the fees that operators pay cable network to carry their programming.

Operators pass those costs along to consumers, while building in some margin for themselves. So if ESPN and TNT are tripling their investment in the NBA until 2025, they’re going to charge operators more to finance this investment, further spiking your bill. According to SNL Kagan data, ESPN and TNT are already the two most expensive national basic cable networks: operators pay an average of $6.04 per month per subscriber to carry ESPN, and $1.44 per month for TNT. That’s right: ESPN can command a price that’s three-times as high as the second most-expensive national basic cable channel. Four of the top-10 most expensive basic cable networks are sports channels (ESPN, NFL Network, ESPN2, Fox Sports 1). Two others — TNT and TBS — feature high-profile sports content like the NBA regular season and playoffs, the baseball playoffs, and March Madness. (Disney Channel, Fox News, USA, and Nickelodeon round out the Top 10, according to SNL Kagan).

In some areas, the regional sports networks are among the most expensive for operators to carry. For example Fox Sports North, which serves Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states, costs $4.67 per subscriber per month. Comcast SportsNet Washington (DC) costs $4.60 per month. NESN, in New England, costs $4.22. The rates dwarf the top-tier, non-ESPN basic cable nets like TNT ($1.44), CNN ($0.61), MTV ($0.47) and AMC ($0.39). The network that shows Minnesota Twins games is nearly 12 times more expensive than the one that airs “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

Over the past five years, ESPN’s carriage fees have jumped 48%. NFL Network fees are up 100%. CNN’s have spiked 22%; fees for Lifetime Television are up 18%. Two forces have driven — and will continue to drive — the accelerated growth in sports cable prices.

First, sports remain DVR-proof. You can record a great TV show, and catch up to it later while fast-forwarding the commercials. (Just stay away from spoilers.) A great sporting event is perishable: going back three days later to watch a Super Bowl just doesn’t make much sense. “Sports is an anomaly,” says Derek Baine, research director at SNL Kagan. “People watch it live.” So ESPN and other sports networks can still attract advertisers, and this ad revenue allows these networks to keep upping the ante for sports rights.

Second, blame Murdoch. If the Fox chairman is going to mount a serious run at ESPN, Fox Sports 1 needs big events. This year’s NLCS, in many respects, is a dress rehearsal. Murdoch’s presence alone made ESPN and TNT pay a premium for the NBA; the networks knew that if they didn’t ante up, Fox would likely swoop in. Fox Sports 1 and other new outlets like NBCSN (NBC Sports Network) increase competition for rights, which create bidding wars that drive up cable bills.

The more expensive monthly bills may not be a bad deal for avid sports fans. For less than $10.00 per month, ESPN comes out to pennies on the hour. But if you don’t want sports, you’re getting rooked. Since cable companies bundle channel packages, you have to pay premiums for ESPN and other sports networks in order to get the stuff you want. Sen. John McCain has pushed for “a la carte” cable — just pay for the channels you know you’ll watch. He won’t get his way any time soon though. The cable industry is fine with their bundled revenues, thank you. The sports boom is just too good. No matter how it costs you.

 

 

TIME College Sports

The Long and Winding Road to Paying College Players

The man who helped win free agency for NFL and NBA players is seeking the same for college athletes

Over the past few months, the movement to pay college players has gained unprecedented momentum. In August, a federal judge ruled that college football and basketball players can earn a share of licensing revenues from the use of their name, image, and likeness. (The NCAA has since appealed the ruling.) An athlete can access these funds, which will be placed in a trust, when he or she has graduated or left the school. Schools can cap the pay, but the minimum cap is $5,000 per year.

This verdict in the so-called “O’Bannon” case – a former UCLA hoops star filed a lawsuit in 2009 after realizing he wasn’t being compensated for his likeness being used in a college basketball video game – came a few days after the NCAA voted to let schools in the Big 5 power conferences – the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC – have autonomy to write their own rules. These schools are prepared to give all their athletes a stipend that covers the full cost of attendance, which amounts to anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 above the value of their athletic scholarships.

In March, a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board said that football players from Northwestern University could form a union, since these students act as employees of the school. Northwestern appealed the decision; the NLRB’s national office has yet to rule on the appeal. One just-released paper, to be published in the Hofstra Labor and Employment Law Journal, argues that the players should win.

(MORE: TIME Cover Story — It’s Time To Pay College Athletes)

However, an even bigger threat to the amateur model looms ahead: the lawyer who helped win free agency for NFL and NBA players is seeking the same open market for college athletes. Jeffrey Kessler, a partner at the Winston & Strawn law firm, filed an anti-trust lawsuit in March that could fundamentally alter college sports. The O’Bannon suit was limited to intellectual property rights: could athletes profit from their names, images, and likeness?

“We’re aiming to enjoin the restrictions placed on Division 1 basketball and major college football players from being compensated for their services, given the huge amount of revenue generated from these sports,” says Kessler, one of the top sports labor attorneys in the country. “What will be decided is whether it’s legal to have a rule that schools cannot compensate athletes at all.”

Kessler’s case won’t go to trial until fall of 2015, at the earliest. If he prevails, the courts may force the NCAA to adopt a true pay-for-play system, which the organization has long dreaded. The mechanics of paying players — do you just pay the football and men’s basketball players, and no one else? Should there be any limits? — are daunting. But the O’Bannon ruling sets some strong precedent for Kessler. The judge in that case, Claudia Wilken, may not have torpedoed the college sports model with her ruling. But she seems to invite someone else to do so.

Her opinion condemns the NCAA, and knocks down some of the most common justifications for limiting compensation for athletes to the value of the scholarship. “The evidence … demonstrates that student-athletes are harmed by the price-fixing agreement among FBS football and Division 1 basketball schools,” Wilken writes.

“It is also not clear why paying student-athletes would be any more problematic for campus relations than paying other students who provide services to the university, such as members of the student government or school newspaper,” Wilken writes in another section.

(MORE: College Athletes Need To Unionize, Now)

There’s nothing amateur about college sports. Conferences own their own television networks. Schools switched conferences to capture more revenues. Coaches salaries have skyrocketed: Newsday just reported that the average compensation for coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision – the top tier of college football schools – is $1.75 million per year. That number has spiked nearly 75% over the past seven years. Athletes deserve their fair share.

Kessler picked the right time to mount a challenge. “There’s a growing recognition from the courts, the public, the fans, and even the schools that the current system is fundamentally unfair,” says Kessler. “We think change is coming.”

 

TIME NBA

A Microsoft Guy Bought the Clippers So Now iPads Will ‘Probably’ Be Banned

Los Angeles Clippers Fan Festival
The new owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Steve Ballmer, addresses the media after being introduced for the first time during the Los Angeles Clippers Fan Festival on August 18, 2014, in Los Angeles Jeff Gross—Getty Images

Expect to see some Surface tablets on the team bench instead

One of Steve Ballmer’s first acts as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers might be to do away with the team’s iPads.

In an interview with Reuters on his plans for the NBA franchise he bought for $2 billion a few months ago, the former Microsoft CEO revealed that the fate of all the Apple devices used by the team’s staff was one of the first things head coach Doc Rivers brought up.

“It’s one of the first things he said to me: ‘We are probably going to get rid of these iPads, aren’t we?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we probably are.’ But I promised we would do it during the off-season,” Ballmer said.

Not surprising, considering that Ballmer was the CEO of Apple’s major competitor for 14 years and is still the company’s largest individual shareholder. In fact, his loyalty to his old company is so strong that no one in his family is allowed to use an iPhone. So why should his team be any different?

“Most of the Clippers are on Windows, some of the players and coaches are not,” he told Reuters.

If the ban goes ahead, any iPads the team uses for courtside strategy will most likely be replaced by Microsoft’s Surface tablets.

The Clippers, under Ballmer’s ownership, will hope to emerge from the shadow of their former owner Donald Sterling, who was banned from the NBA and forced to sell his team earlier this year after racist comments he made to his then girlfriend became public.

[Reuters]

TIME NBA

NBA Player Got Arrested Again After Domestic Violence Charges

Jeff Taylor
Charlotte Bobcats guard Jeff Taylor (44) shoots during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the Indiana Pacers and the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) in Indianapolis on Dec. 13, 2013. Aj Mast — AP

He had been booked on domestic assault charges earlier the same day

Police in East Lansing, Mich., reportedly arrested Charlotte Hornets small forward Jeff Taylor for a second time on Thursday afternoon and charged the player with malicious destruction of a building.

The damage inflicted on the building was valued at less than $200, and he was later bonded out, according to a local NBC affiliate.

The arrest comes only hours after Taylor was charged with domestic assault, assault and malicious destruction of property.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, the Swedish-American small forward was allegedly involved in an altercation at the East Lansing Marriott; however, authorities have yet to release a detailed account of what happened, according to ESPN.

“The Charlotte Hornets were made aware of the incident involving Jeffery Taylor early this evening. The organization is in the process of gathering more information and doing our due diligence,” read a statement released by the Hornets. “This is a matter that we take very seriously.”

An NBA spokesperson reportedly told the sports broadcaster that the league had commenced an investigation into the matter as well.

The allegations of Taylor’s misconduct come days after the NBA promised to review its policies regarding domestic violence in the wake of the NFL’s recent experiences with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.

“We learn from other league’s experiences. We’re studying everything that’s been happening in the NFL,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told a press conference in New York City earlier this week.

TIME NBA

NBA Player Arrested for Alleged Domestic Assault

Bobcats team photos
Charlotte Bobcats forward Jeffery Taylor, Oct. 1, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jeff Siner—MCT/Getty Images

Pro basketball player Jeff Taylor was arrested early Thursday morning

Jeff Taylor, wing for the Charlotte Hornets, was arrested early Thursday in an East Lansing hotel and charged with domestic assault.

The 25-year-old basketball player’s bond was set at $5,000 after his arrest at the Marriot at University Place in East Lansing, WCNC reports. His charges include domestic assault, assault, and malicious destruction of property.

Taylor, who is entering his third season in the league, played just 26 games last season before he ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon.

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said Monday that in light of the recent controversies over domestic violence that have plagued the NFL, the NBA would reexamine its domestic violence policy, reports CBS Sports.

[WCNC]

 

TIME NFL

NBA Star Defends Ray Rice in Controversial and Quickly Deleted Tweets

Paul George deleted and apologized for his tweets after immediate backlash

Indiana Pacers star Paul George deleted and apologized for controversial—and quickly criticized—tweets Thursday morning that defended disgraced former Batlimore Ravens star Ray Rice against public condemnation for domestic abuse.

Here are screen grabs of the now-deleted tweets, analyzing Janay Rice’s role in the attack. He excused the elevator attack both because Janay forgave him:

And because she allegedly provoked him:

The NBA player then apologized:

Since the release of a video showing Rice knocking his wife unconscious in a casino elevator, Twitter has become a key platform to discuss domestic violence—inspiring hashtags including #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed to shed light on the mindset of victims of abuse.

TIME

The Moral Arc of Pro Sports Bends Toward Profit

Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.
Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

The Ray Rice and Bruce Levenson scandals show how much the public wants change professional sports cannot provide

The Boston Red Sox didn’t integrate until 1959. Former NFL defensive end Leonard Little killed a woman while driving, with more than two times Missouri’s legal limit of alcohol in his blood. NHL winger Todd Bertuzzi broke three vertebrae in Steve Moore’s neck with an illegal hit from behind. Prized prizefighter Floyd Mayweather is a serial abuser of women. Donald Sterling, who had been fingered as a racist slumlord in a 2003 housing-discrimination lawsuit, owned the Los Angeles Clippers for more than 30 years.

And just look where we are now. Forbes says the Red Sox are the third most valuable team in baseball. Little earned more than $30 million in salary after the manslaughter, despite another DUI arrest. Bertuzzi drew more than $30 million after his misdeed, too. Mayweather has earned $72 million for his last two fights. And Sterling, after an audiotape surfaced containing his vulgar thoughts on black people, was forced to sell the Clippers, a perennial loser until only recently, for $2 billion, 160 times what he paid for the team. The moral arc of professional sports is long, but it bends toward profit.

The list goes on. Professional sports have long lagged behind the rest of society in recognizing opportunities for inclusion and reprimanding behavior worthy of scorn. And when the leagues finally do get around to punishment, the punishment is often cynically motivated or ethically untenable itself. Think, for instance, of Major League Baseball’s decision to pay off a drug dealer to tarnish superstar Alex Rodriguez.

It’s a little odd, then, that upon TMZ’s revelation of security-camera footage Monday morning showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer, his then-fiancée (now-wife) in an elevator, most every pundit has resumed his or her criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

In July, Goodell decided to suspend Rice two games in 2014 after surveillance video, published by TMZ in February, showed Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer from an elevator. (Whether the NFL saw the tape released Monday, which shows the left hook that knocked Palmer’s head to the elevator handrail, or only the tape released in February when deciding on its Rice suspension is another—murky—matter.) That brief suspension faced so much scorn that Goodell, a month later, announced a new policy promising an automatic six-game suspension for a first domestic-violence offense, and a permanent ban (albeit with the possibility of reinstatement) for a second one. Why announce a policy instead of simply issuing stricter suspensions in the future? You shift the narrative, change the optics, whatever it is the image consultants call it.

Goodell, with the help of those same image consultants and a pliant press, has indeed succeeded at fashioning himself into a man of great conviction, a leader for tough times, an arbiter and possessor of high moral authority. Little could be further from the truth: A man of high moral authority would not draw $44 million in salary as the CEO of a registered nonprofit that exists solely to promote bloodsport. Goodell is Don King with better hair. You’re better off taking communion from Jean-Claude Van Damme than looking to the NFL for moral guidance. For today’s NFL exists in a moral abyss, buying off its players’ bodies and brains, branded to high heaven by Bud Light and Bose.

Yet it’s this organization, and this man, we lean on to do something about the nationwide scourge of domestic violence? By extending one player’s suspension from competition? To put pressure on Goodell to act is to play right into his so-called iron fist.

Witness the good press the NBA and its new commissioner Adam Silver have received for Sterling’s banishment. It’s not hard to imagine that the Sterling success prompted the league to usher out Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson for much less odious behavior, which was essentially the profit-minded suggestion, in an internal email revealed Sunday, that many Southern whites don’t like black people. Yet it is hard to imagine that the commissioner’s office—which then included Silver as its COO and President of NBA Entertainment—produced no similar emails in 2005 when it decided to hire ex-Bush strategist Matthew Dowd to appeal to white America. Soon afterward, the league (with Silver now as its deputy commissioner) adopted dress codes on and off the court, banning jewelry and shooting sleeves and all manner of garb that might conjure a vision of Allen Iverson.

The NBA is winning praise (and facing no criticism) for fighting a tacit racism it funded and nurtured less than a decade ago. Writers are looking to an empty NFL suit to help solve a real crisis. This state of affairs illustrates an ugly tension in modern, decadent American culture: Professional sports are awfully poor vehicles for social change, but an awfully large number of smart people consider them the best ones we’ve got.

TIME Race

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Bruce Levenson Isn’t a Racist; He’s a Businessman

Bruce Levenson
Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson Dave Tulis—AP

Sure, there are assumptions he makes that are cringeworthy—but the questions about how to attract more white fans were entirely reasonable.

Well, the pitchforks are already sharpened and the torches lit anyway, so rather than let them go to waste, why not drag another so-called racist before the court of public opinion and see how much ratings-grabbing, head-shaking and race-shaming we can squeeze out of it? After all, the media got so much gleeful, hand-wringing mileage out of Don Sterling and Michael Brown.

The only problem is that Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson is no Donald Sterling. Nor is his email racist. In fact, his worst crime is misguided white guilt.

I read Levenson’s email. Here’s what I concluded: Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats. In the email, addressed to Hawks president Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations) the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music and the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90% blacks, kiss cams focus on black fans and time-out contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans.

From left: Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Dominique Wilkins Courtesy of Iconomy, LLC

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 that added more women, reportedly in an effort to attract more female 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. For example: “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 may not be coming.

To Levenson’s credit, in that same paragraph, he dismisses fans who complained about the arena’s site as code for racist fear that “there are too many blacks at the games.” He further decries the white perception that even though the percentage of blacks in attendance had lessened, they still feel it’s higher and therefore somehow threatening. His outrage seems authentic.

Businesspeople 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 gaffes if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent. This is a business email that is pretty harmless in terms of insulting anyone — and pretty fascinating in terms of seeing how the business of running a team really works.

The thing that makes me mad is that Levenson was too quick to rend his clothing and shout mea culpa. In his apology, he wrote, “By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.” But that’s not the message in the email at all. If the seats had been filled, even if by all blacks, the email wouldn’t have been written. He wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks; he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets. That’s his job.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

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