GM Wes Wilcox disciplined by Hawks for racially charged remark

ByMarc J. Spears ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Atlanta Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox has received an undisclosed discipline from the organization for a racially charged joke he made during a season-ticket holder event last month, a team executive told ESPN's The Undefeated.

Wilcox, who is white, fielded questions from about 200 season-ticket holders and club members at a "Chalk Talk" event on Dec. 7. After some challenging questions from attendees, Deadspin reported that Wilcox responded by saying he had "a black wife and three mixed kids, so I'm used to people being angry and argumentative."

A Hawks internal investigation from Dec. 27 to Jan. 9 that included interviews with attendees concluded that Wilcox didn't use the words "angry and argumentative," but the mention of race merited his being reprimanded internally by the franchise.

"After hearing multiple sides of the story and getting multiple eyewitness accounts of what took place, I am not convinced that what we heard and read in Deadspin is a direct quote that was used," Nzinga Shaw, Hawks and Philips Arena chief diversity and inclusion officer, told The Undefeated on Tuesday. "Wes, however, certainly did make his off-color statement, which included elements of describing his wife's race. People that were in the room could make the assumption that he was using her race for the reason of the comments that followed. We certainly do not approve of this behavior and we are going to handle this manner internally."

The Deadspin account of Wilcox's words came from Hawks season-ticket holder Clarenton Crawford, an African-American who sent an email to team president Steve Koonin on Dec. 19. Shaw also contacted the NBA to inform the league about Wilcox's incident after Crawford's email was sent to Koonin. Shaw and Koonin met with Crawford and his wife on Jan. 3 in Atlanta after the couple returned from a trip out of the country. Shaw also conducted interviews with season-ticket holders and employees who were present in the room when Wilcox made his remarks.

Shaw said the Hawks have no plans to fire Wilcox, but an undisclosed internal discipline was levied after the investigation concluded Jan. 9. She added that the NBA left it entirely up to the team to levy any discipline. The NBA had previously told The Undefeated's Mike Wise that it had no plans of reprimanding Wilcox.

Wilcox declined comment to The Undefeated but previously apologized in a statement to Deadspin: "At an early December chalk talk, I made a self-deprecating comment at my own expense regarding my family, which is multi-racial. This joke offended Mr. Crawford and his wife and for that, I apologize."

Shaw was hired by the Hawks as the NBA's first-ever diversity chief in December 2014 after the franchise had some notable racial issues. In June 2014, then-general manager Danny Ferry read comments in a conference call with team owners that contained racially insensitive remarks regarding then-NBA free-agent forward Luol Deng. Ferry described Deng as a player who "has a little African in him," and "a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back."

Shortly after, the Hawks' then-controlling owner Bruce Levenson reported that he sent out a racist email two months earlier to Ferry that detailed Levenson's belief that the Atlanta fan base was "overwhelmingly black" and the "black people scared away whites" from attending games. Ferry resigned his post on June 22, 2015, after a 10-month leave of absence, and Levenson eventually sold the team.

"It was a tumultuous time. We went through so much. It was awful and almost took us under," Shaw said.

Following Shaw's hiring, the Hawks have tried to become more diverse, racially sensitive and inclusive.

Shaw designed a strategic, cross-departmental program that creates deeper cultural awareness and sensitivity. She provided guidance to the Hawks' leadership team to carry out inclusion in every facet of the business. On July 19, Shaw hosted an all-employee internal forum centering on what the Hawks described as "the unsettling and alarming events around the nation during the summer." She also spearheaded the Hawks' first-ever "Unity Weekend" last October in which the franchise engaged in all-staff community service, had a float in the Atlanta Pride Festival and hosted the first-ever "Unity Game" on Oct. 10 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Shaw said Wilcox's incident was taken "very seriously," and was optimistic that it wouldn't derail the positive things the Hawks have done of late.

"We don't take matters like this lightly. We have a full understanding of what took place. We as an organization will get past it and hope to regain the trust of the community. This work will not stop," Shaw said.