Lawsuit claims Atlanta Hawks discriminated against entertainers because of race

A former employee of the Atlanta Hawks is suing the basketball organization and another employee for treating entertainers and politicians visiting the Hawks differently based on race, according to a lawsuit filed this week.


Samuel Hayes, a former Security Operations Manager for the club, claims in the suit that there were different sets of security protocol for black and non-black entertainers that visited Philips Arena. Hayes said the protocol, when enforced differently, was to the detriment of black entertainers. Hayes also claimed he was fired because of his race.

“It’s our practice at this time that when the case is in active litigation we don’t comment,” Louise N. Smith, one of the lawyers representing Hayes told SB Nation. “But, I think the lawsuit speaks for itself.”

Nzinga Shaw, the Hawks’ Chief Diversity Inclusion Officer, said via email that “Samuel Hayes is a former security manager at Philips Arena. He was terminated for poor performance and his claims are baseless. We will defend vigorously.”

Hayes is suing the other employee and the Hawks for racial discrimination and retaliation based on race.

According to the lawsuit Hayes was hired by the Hawks in August 2016. He was responsible for managing the security, day-to-day, of the Philips Arena, which included a staff of more than forty people. Hayes reported directly to Jason Parker, who is white, and ultimately ordered for his termination.

In the first month of Hayes’ employment, he noticed a trend for how black guests were treated by security staff. On August 26, 2016, Drake and Future, who are both black, asked to bypass metal detectors before performing at Philips Arena. Both were denied, according to the suit.

The following week, AC/DC performed a concert at the arena. Two white performers, Axel Rose and Brian Wilson, asked to bypass metal detectors. Their requests were approved, according to the suit.

Additionally, they requested that their vehicles be left in the loading dock of the arena. This was directly against the Hawks’ security protocol, the suit claims. Their requests were approved. Their cars weren’t swept for explosives. And they were permitted inside the loading dock, one of the arena’s most vulnerable areas for security threats.

A month later, several staffers complained to Hayes about the disparities in security enforcement for black and white entertainers. According to the lawsuit, the practices Hayes had encountered were going on “long before” Hayes “started working for at the Atlanta Hawks.”

The suit goes on to allege that staffers observed Parker and another employee, Megan Lodestro (a white woman) demand “extra tight security” for “black shows.” They did this, the suit says, while continuing to deny black guests similar security privileges as their white counterparts.

The same practices continued to happen through the rest of the year. When the Bad Boy Family Reunion concert came to Philips Arena, Sean “Diddy” Combs requested to bypass metal detectors and he was denied, the lawsuit said.

Kasim Reed, Atlanta’s mayor, attended that concert. Hayes attended a meeting days before to go over the mayor’s security detail, according to the suit. When Reed’s security detail asked to drop off the mayor at the media entrance, Parker denied the request. The lawsuit details that white guests have been granted those privileges.


Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks

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In a meeting following the exchange, Parker explained that Reed “thinks he’s a celebrity,” according to the lawsuit. Parker went on to allegedly say that the mayor “has this attitude that he deserves special privileges” and that he “thinks he owns the place.”

For the rest of the month, black entertainers met the same response when coming to Philips Arena for performances. Kanye West, D.L. Hugely, Cedric “The Entertainer” and Eddie Griffin all performed that month. They all requested to bypass the metal detectors. They were all denied, per the lawsuit.

In October, Amy Schumer performed at Philips Arena. She asked for her entire production team to bypass the metal detectors “for convenience.” Her request was granted. Schumer’s body guard then asked if he could drop her off at the media entrance, and was denied by Hayes, the plaintiff, because “even the mayor of Atlanta was not allowed to use the media entrance.”

According to the lawsuit, this caused an issue between Hayes and Parker. Two days after the incident, Hayes was reprimanded by Parker and told to write an apology letter. Parker allegedly told Hayes that “people perceive him as aggressive because he is a large black man with an intimidating voice.” Further, he told Hayes “to watch his tone” when speaking to others.

At this meeting, Parker (a defendant), was dismissive of Hayes’ complaints of racial disparities between black and white guests of the arena. For the next event that took place, two Adele shows at the end of October, her security detail’s requests to enter and park her vehicles in the loading dock were granted.

At the beginning of November, Parker issued Hayes a final verbal warning about being “respectful” and watching his tone.

By December, The Dream, 2 Chainz and Jeezy and the Old School Hip Hop Fest (majority black entertainers) came to the Philips Arena. They all requested to bypass security. All of their requests were denied. And heightened security measures were enforced during their events, according to the lawsuit.

Days before December ended, WWE Live came to the Philips Arena. Per the suit, several white performers made special requests which were all granted.

2017 continued this trend of racial disparities, according to the lawsuit. Katt Williams, Nelly, black celebrities coming to see a show for Charlie Wilson, Migos and Tyler Perry all had issues at Philips Arena. Migos had heightened security for their event and were searched multiple times. Nelly was not allowed to park in the loading dock even though his car could not fit in the parking deck.

Non-black performers did not go through the same theatrics, according to the lawsuit. Ariana Grande was allowed to bypass metal detectors because “she doesn’t like people looking at her.” So was the entire production staff for The Ringling Bros. circus group. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill got the same treatment.

The most notable actions came when the British rock group Radiohead came to the arena in April 2017. A black security member told Hayes he was being demeaned by the band’s crew. A white crew member for the band was told he could not enter the building because he didn’t go through metal detectors. In response, the white member allegedly became “belligerent” and dropped his pants. A white, senior, manager for the arena got involved and allowed the crew member to bypass the detectors.


Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Five

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After the Radiohead incident, Hayes met with several department heads to discuss what happened. It was in that meeting that Barry Henson, the Vice President of Philips Arena, told Hayes that the security staff (which the suit claims is all black) are treated “worse than anyone in the building and needed more support.”

By this point, Hayes’ and Parker’s relationship was deteriorating, per the suit. Though Parker complimented Hayes on “improving the attitude” of the staff and his overall leadership skills, the suit says that Parker referred to Hayes as “the large, angry black man.” Even when Hayes objected to that labeling, Parker allegedly continued.

In April after the Ariana Grande concert, Hayes again went to Parker to find out why there was so much racial disparity between black performances and white ones. Hayes said that it directly contradicted the Hawks’ new commitment to racial diversity following so many incidents in the Hawks’ recent history (like Bruce Levenson’s racist emails and Danny Ferry’s comments).

“Hip hop acts draw a different crowd, and the white acts bring in more money,” Parker allegedly told Hayes, according to the lawsuit.

Following this discussion, Hayes talked to Shaw, the organization’s Chief Diversity Inclusion officer. He told her about the problems of the last year. Shaw told him to speak to Parker’s superior, though, Hayes expressed concern that there would be retaliation.

After telling Parker one last time about the complaints, Hayes took his concerns to T. Scott Wilkinson, the Hawks’ Chief Legal Officer. Hayes ended up postponing their meeting, which he didn’t tell Wilkinson the nature of. He wanted to wait for the on-boarding of Atlanta’s former Chief of Police: George Turner, a black man that Hayes would be answering to instead of Parker.

One business day before Turner was brought in, Hayes was fired, according to the lawsuit. Hayes was allegedly fired for terminating one staffer and suspending another without consulting the Human Resources department, a policy Hayes said didn’t exist.

The same day, Hayes sent an email to Shaw, Wilkinson and one other, to express that his firing was retaliatory. Shaw emailed him back a week later and told him he should have complained in writing, “decisions about security have nothing to do with race” and “that there was nothing she could do for him.”


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