After months of embarrassing fallout from evidence of racism in management, the Atlanta Hawks is trying to win back public favor with a diversity game plan that includes LGBT basketball fans.
Even as the NBA recovered from the Los Angeles Clippers scandal that exposed racist remarks from that team’s owner last summer, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson stepped down in September due to an e-mail that disparaged black fans. Within weeks, Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry was suspended indefinitely for racist remarks about a player.
With them out of the way, step one in a pivot toward equality came in hiring Nzinga Shaw, the first diversity officer for any NBA team. Race is not the only focus in her strategy to educate the Hawks from within and revitalize its image with fans, she told Creative Loafing in December.
Her approach won't just focus on racial differences, but also gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and education level, among other individual characteristics.
“Diversity means we’re celebrating everyone’s unique attributes,” Shaw says. “Inclusion means we’re going to figure out the best ways to leverage our differences so we see new people in the organization, recruit differently, build new community outreach programs, target fans very differently.”
With such a public debacle to overcome, critics say Shaw’s position is little more than window dressing that covers the public relations nightmare but doesn’t address the underlying problems. To bolster the team’s claims of real change, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin on Thursday reiterated a commitment to diversity and called out gay fans by name.
It's not window dressing. That's such a ridiculous comment. It's hard to respond. Nzinga [Shaw] is part of our organization, part of our DNA. One of the things that I'm looking at is how do we [do] outreach to the gay community.
Atlanta has the third biggest gay population [among U.S. cities]. How do we outreach to the Asian community? We've started with Spanish language radio. How do we connect to communities?
Things haven’t been this gay in Philips Arena since then-closeted Jason Collins was doing gay Atlanta on the down-low, or when he later earned the Hawks' respect for coming out. Then again, the team has some history pleasing gay fans. They love lesbian “GMA” host Robin Roberts, and they do deliver the hunks – on the court (photo) and off.