When the country erupted in fiery protests following the videotaped killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, the Atlanta Hawks were ready for what would happen next. In fact, they’d been ready for years.
“Our pivot almost six years ago was to two undervalued, underrated and under-represented communities,” said Hawks CEO Steve Koonin. “The millennials were one, and the second thing was to embrace the diversity of our city. It’s the home of black Hollywood and civil rights. It’s wonderful. So we fought to be a stronger part of it.”
What started as community outreach in response to racially inflammatory comments by then–general manager Danny Ferry has become core to a forward-thinking, financially prosperous organization, not just capable of leading during today’s civil uprisings but wanting to do so.
This is a story about doing the right thing, about embedding in the community, about fighting systemic racism and along the way, making some money, too. The Hawks’ stubborn, unique and intelligent approach has, in part, led to a doubling of the franchise’s value in just a few years. This is a story of change, compassion and financial transformation. It’s also a blueprint for franchises and leagues around the country.
What the Hawks have long known, and what many teams across all sports are finally starting to understand, is that America’s racial mechanics aren’t destined to grind backwards. They can instead tick forward, and sports franchises can be a part of that progress, not a hinderance. Tolerance can be empowering and yes, even profitable.
It’s not a coincidence that as the Hawks became a progressive fixture in Atlanta the team’s value has skyrocketed. Tony Ressler bought the Hawks in 2015 for $730 million, and they are now worth $1.5 billion, according to Forbes.
The national and worldwide protests began after Floyd’s murder on May 25. In Atlanta, when an unarmed African American man named Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back by a white police officer on June 12, the anger intensified.
The Hawks proved to be a visible and comforting presence in the city, immediately trusted by the community. This was not by accident.
The Hawks’ road map for the past six years has been to embed itself in Atlanta’s black community. The outreach has been more granular than that of most teams: going into all corners of the city; working heavily in conjunction with city officials, including mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and treating black Atlantans like the key demographic they are.
The Hawks were the first NBA team to have a chief diversity and inclusion officer position after several racial controversies hit the team. Recently, they were among the first professional sports teams to designate Juneteenth—the celebration of the end of slavery—as a permanent company holiday.
The result has been a textbook example of how to make a business both profitable and socially impactful. The Hawks say 40 percent of their ticket buyers are African American, tops in the league.
“I believe we have an opportunity to make real change for the better,” Ressler said. “In educating all Americans on the true history of racism in America. In enacting real police and criminal justice reform. In making real improvements in voting registration, especially in Georgia, and certainly in providing economic empowerment for disadvantaged communities across our country. Hopefully, ownership, players, coaches and staff at the Atlanta Hawks, as well as everyone else in the NBA, will play a positive role in all of these endeavors.”
Nothing symbolizes the Hawks’ steadfast sincerity than the activism of head coach Lloyd Pierce.
When we spoke, Pierce was discussing his sense of responsibility in this brave new world when his two-year old daughter, Maya Joy, started a rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” Pierce stopped to laugh and admire his daughter’s vocals before perfectly summarizing where we are when it comes to race relations, the Hawks and sports overall.
“I think for the first time in a long time, people hear us,” Pierce said. “They feel us, they see us. White people, I think, are really beginning to understand America’s past, particularly the systemic racism, all the things we’ve been fighting for centuries.
“This has been a long time coming,” he continued. “Teams and leagues are finally getting that they don’t have to be afraid of people who don’t agree with them. They can be a part of this change and lead. They can publicly support black and brown athletes and not think twice about it.”
“I’m getting involved because I want things to be better for my daughter,” Pierce added. “The way the civil rights movement made things better for me, I want to be part of making things better for her future. I really think the Hawks, and a lot of teams across sports, can be a part of that.”
Sports have long been dual role-holders, simultaneously breakers of racial barriers, and partners in upholding them—sometimes even squashing athletes who addressed systemic issues. That’s what the NFL did in essentially banning Colin Kaepernick after he and 49ers teammate Eric Reid started the protest movement in 2016.
Now, the activism of people like Pierce are celebrated. He is opening up the Hawks to a bigger fanbase, the way the banning of the Confederate flag could draw more eyeballs to NASCAR. The NFL, which once discouraged kneeling, is now fully backing it.
The death of Floyd ushered in one of the most dramatic shifts toward racial progress in sports since Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. There’s never been a moment in American sports history like this, in which every major sports league publicly acknowledged systemic racism.
The NFL has pledged $250 million over ten years to fight systemic racism. Players from the National Hockey League are speaking publicly about racial injustice in ways they never have before.
“We’re seeing a massive change that I think will be permanent,” said Pierce. “I know players in the NBA will work hard to make sure this is true generational change. I think that’s what we’re seeing.”
Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a lecturing fellow at Duke University who studies the intersection of sports and race, agrees. But he was also cautious, saying some of the leagues are offering only superficial examples of actual change.
“There is no question that we have seen a massive outward shift in the disposition of the sporting world to the question of race and activism,” Kalman-Lamb wrote in an email. “Where once, protest was viewed as essentially taboo—to the extent that Kaepernick, like Craig Hodges and others before him, was blackballed from his sport for speaking out—today we see literally every league, nearly every team, and many players offering some form of acknowledgment of and objection to racism in U.S. society.”
That, however, is not enough, Kalman-Lamb says, urging leagues to go further to prove how serious they are over the long-term. In other words, the transformation has taken off, but it still faces a strong headwind.
To a degree, some of this change was already happening in NBA and NFL locker rooms, but in far smaller doses in the latter. The late Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, hired the first Latino and black head coaches in the NFL in Tom Flores (1979) and Art Shell (’89), respectively. Davis also appointed the first female team chief executive, Amy Trask, in ’97.
Davis realized that hiring diversely wasn’t just the right thing to do; it could also make a franchise money by increasing fan loyalty.
“I worked for a man who hired without regard to race, gender, ethnicity and other individualities well before others thought to do so,” Trask said, “and I do not believe it was a coincidence that we had a diverse fan base.”
Floyd’s death has accelerated discussions of race at a speed that hadn’t previously existed. Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who played from 2008–16, says white players understood, and backed, black players who knelt (though few joined in). Schwartz, who is white, and whose brother, Mitch, is a Super Bowl winning offensive lineman for Kansas City, said that understanding continues now, but it doesn’t mean there still aren’t some unknowns.
“I think most [white players] accepted it before,” said Schwartz. “The questions now are: a) Will they kneel also? b) Will there be backlash for white players who don’t kneel? And c) have they learned why players are kneeling?”
One of the key instructive moments happened when more than a dozen star NFL players—including Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP—released a striking video asking the NFL to publicly attack racism and admit the league was wrong in trying to silence players who had peacefully protested.
“It’s been 10 days since George Floyd was brutally murdered,” players stated on the June 5 video. “How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players? What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality? What if I was George Floyd?”
Not long thereafter, Goodell released a video apologizing for silencing the players and uttered the words “black lives matter.” To some players, Goodell saying those words was a major game-changer.
Then, after all of that, came the fatal shooting of Brooks in the parking lot of an Atlanta fast-food restaurant. Pierce quickly emerged as a leader in the city, but before venturing into the community, he held a team meeting with players over Zoom. “I was still in the angry stage,” he said, “still the emotional stage. I told the players, ‘It’s okay to not be okay.’ I wasn’t okay.”
Pierce is perfect for this moment. He’s extremely intelligent, communicative and has the support of the upper echelon of the Hawks and the NBA. He spoke on June 15 at a peaceful rally in Atlanta sponsored by the NAACP, which according to published reports was attended by several thousand people, and has been a steady presence around the city.
The Hawks, meanwhile, announced on Monday that they are partnering with the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections to transform State Farm Arena into the state’s largest-ever voting precinct for the November general elections.
In a matter of years, the franchise has set a positive example of emerging from the thorniness of a racial blunder and becoming whole again. In 2014, when Ferry described free agent Luol Deng, a South Sudanese refugee and British citizen, as having “a little African in him” and said the forward could be problematic in the locker room, the Hawks were a different franchise, at a different moment in time. Now that seems so long ago.
“I’m looking at the future,” said Pierce, “and I’m going to keep fighting.”