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Thoughts on the NBA Dress Code

Marc Lamont Hill
Allen Iverson, off court — photo from

The new NBA dress code, which requires players to dress in 'business casual attire', is clearly and unapologetically directed toward suppressing hip-hop culture.

"Why they hate our white t-shirts and hats turned backwards?"
� Nas "Why (Remix)"

In October, the NBA officially announced its new dress code policy, which requires that players wear "business casual attire" when engaged in league or team business and a sport coat when not in uniform for a game. Soon after, a colleague asked me what I thought about the decision. Conjuring the spirit of Kanye West, I playfully deadpanned, "David Stern doesn't care about black people."

Unfortunately, my subtle allusion to the Louis Vuitton Don's comments about George W. Bush in light of the Katrina disaster was lost on the near octogenarian, who likely didn't know Kanye West from Wesley Snipes. Instead, he gave me a look that at once revealed disappointment and confusion. In his estimation, I had played the "race card", thereby eliminating any possibility for further civilized liberal discussion. Moreover, as his facial expression revealed, by unnecessarily invoking the race gods I had complicated an extremely simple issue: NBA players are professionals and need to behave as such.

On the one hand, my colleague's reaction was entirely correct. A sophisticated analysis of the situation cannot be realized by merely reducing David Stern's decree to outright or even implicit racism. Stern, like co-presidents Bush and Cheney, would not likely confess any animus toward black people, even in the most safe and private of social circles. Rather, he would honestly argue that his decisions are based on the "best interests of the league" (i.e., profit-making) with little or no consideration of race. As Stern has correctly argued, the NBA is losing a significant sector of its fan base and needed to change its image in order to sustain or regain (depending on who you ask) its Michael Jordan-era momentum. Further, they argue, the NBA's imposition of a dress code is no different than the measures that have been taken by other leagues, like the nearly all-white NHL, whose policy decisions are also money motivated.

On the other hand, as critical race theorists have reminded us, it is impossible to understand color-blind ideologies without implicating race and racism. As legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw has argued, treating people who are different as if they were the same is just as unfair and oppressive as treating people who are the same differently. In all reality, the NBA is a white owned and operated institution that is sustained through the cultural and athletic work of young black males. As such, its practices are inevitably shaped by issues of race, class, gender, and generation in ways that are distinct from other leagues and linked to a particular set of historical circumstances.

The Artest Rules
Although the NBA announced its new dress code from its New York office in October 2005, the memo was really drafted nearly a year earlier in Auburn Hills, Michigan. On 19 November 2004, a near scuffle between Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace and Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest erupted into the ugliest and scariest incident in American professional sports since Kermit Washington's nearly fatal 1977 blow to the face of Rudy Tomjonavich. After being doused with a beverage thrown by a white male spectator seated a dozen rows from courtside, Artest charged the stands and proceeded to pummel the fan, igniting a 15-minute long brawl that included numerous players, fans, and foreign objects. Immediately after the incident, which dominated the news for weeks, the NBA began its ongoing campaign to challenge the increasingly popular belief that thugs had overrun the league.

Like most Americans, I was horrified by the incident. But, like many of the black people with whom I spoke afterward, I also possessed a more pragmatic and nuanced moral sensibility that is best reflected in Chris Rock's famous line about O.J. Simpson, "I ain't saying it's right . . . But I understand!" While I completely objected to Ron Artest's undisciplined and uncourageous charge into the stands � it is entirely fair to wonder how the supposedly crazy Artest was able to contain himself after being mugged by the monstrous Ben Wallace but couldn't do the same for the milquetoast heckler � I also empathized with his reaction to being used as a metaphorical and literal receptacle for white male anger. Consequently, I must admit that I found a bit of perverse pleasure in watching the terrorized face of the white spectator immediately before its unenviable encounter with Artest's fist.

As one of the few black people seated near courtside at Philadelphia 76ers games, I have the opportunity to witness firsthand how the mostly white audience responds to the mostly black players. It is not uncommon to hear fans matter-of-factly use words like "animal", "monkey", or "criminal" to describe the home and visiting team's players. Perhaps the most consistent target is superstar Allen Iverson, the poster boy for the hip-hop generation and the recipient of the most offensive ad hominem attacks of any player in the league. Barbs about Iverson's often-exaggerated criminal record, sex life, family, and friends descend from the stands with relative frequency in spite, or perhaps because of, his apparent indifference.

While these hecklers are certainly in the minority, they reveal an increasingly antagonistic relationship between players and fans that is further exacerbated by race and class dynamics. As NBA players get younger and richer, the image of the spoiled, selfish, undisciplined, uneducated, and violent athlete has been positioned more prominently within the public imagination. Much of the blame for this type of athlete has been placed on hip-hop culture, which is seen by many as a cultural evil that erodes the moral fabric of society. Players like Iverson are either constructed as outlaw figures that must be policed or mindless savages that need to be controlled through paternalistic gestures like the league's new minimum age requirement.

The hatred that modern athletes generate among the NBA's white middle class fan base is compounded and complicated by the growing salience that hip-hop and NBA culture plays in the lives of middle American youth. Due to the NBA's masterful exploitation of the conditions of globalization, it has become increasingly easy and risk-free to glamorize the ghetto, appropriate black cultural styles, and fetishize black bodies. For example, suburban teens can sit in their homes and watch NBA-sanctioned Rucker league tournaments or play cutting edge video games like NBA Street that allow them to experience "life in the 'hood" without confronting ghetto realities like poverty, unemployment, and police terrorism.

In essence, over the past 10 years, the NBA has exploited hip-hop culture in order to create the conditions for whites to survey, abuse, adore, and even try on impoverished conceptions of black identity with little or nothing at stake. Given this context, Artest's charge into the stands signified more than hypermasculine posturing. For him and other athletes, it was a post-colonial act of resistance directed toward his immediate and televisual overseers. For the NBA, however, it was a case of "niggas gone wild" that demanded immediate attention, discipline, and punishment through draconian policies like the NBA dress code.

Through the dress code, the NBA has signaled to its fans that it has regained control of its players by banning the accoutrements of hip-hop culture, which have been deemed symptomatic of a larger problem. Even if one were to dismiss the relationship between the Palace brawl and the new policy as coincidental, the language of the dress code is clearly and unapologetically directed toward hip-hop culture. For example, the NBA explicitly prohibits doo-rags, jewelry, white t-shirts, and throwback jerseys at any time while on team or league business. By forbidding everything except for wave brushes and b-boy stances, the league has clearly marked hip-hop and black youth culture more broadly as the primary targets of the rule changes.

Dress Code Debates
While there have been several dissident voices, much of the public discourse about the NBA dress code has been supportive. Some have argued that, like any corporation, the NBA has a right and a duty to respond to the desires of its customers. Therefore, imposing a dress code in order to satisfy its paying fan base amounts to basic business sense. Further, these people argue, a dress code merely aligns the league's players with professionals around the corporate world who must "dress the part" in order to successfully negotiate the context. Others have argued that banning jewelry will countervail much of hip-hop's materialism and provide a more appropriate message for children. These arguments, however, wilt under closer scrutiny.

The idea that the new dress code will enable a more professional atmosphere is both disingenuous and naïve. First, it is disingenuous to suggest that the current dress code is comparable to other professional contexts. For example, how many professional jobs dictate what people wear when they're not working? This may seem like a small matter until you consider the absurdity of a seven-foot, 300-pound man being forced to sit in uncomfortable clothing as he flies from Toronto to Sacramento. Additionally, many high profile companies such as Apple and Nike do not impose dress codes on their employees on the grounds that they discourage individuality and creativity.

Even if the dress code were comparable to the corporate world, the reality is that the NBA is not a traditional corporation. Unlike IBM or Microsoft, NBA employees are also entertainers who are paid enormous amounts of money and given considerable attention because of their unique circumstances. Could anyone imagine Interscope telling Eminem that he needed to wear slacks and collared shirts when he's on or off the stage? Such an act would undermine the very creativity that enables the league to thrive in the first place.

Also, the current dress code does nothing to prevent players from using their creativity to stylize attire in ways that undermine the professionalism for which the league is ostensibly looking. It will be interesting to see how the league will sell the inevitable flurry of pimp couture � check the 20-button fluorescent suits, alligator shoes, and mink coats that former NFL players like Michael Irvin wear in the Fox television studio � as "professional".

More importantly, it is naïve to suggest that the current dip in ratings is directly linked to the players' sartorial choices. Such a claim would ignore the long history of racialized hatred that black athletes from Black Jack Johnson to Patrick Ewing have received prior to the commercial marriage of hoops and hip-hop. In fact, since the end of the civil war, black people have vigorously bought into a politics of respectability that has not resulted in full-fledged recognition of their humanity despite their concessions to mainstream values. Given this context, it is absurd to expect that any amount of "appropriate attire" will mitigate the hatred hurled against black bodies within and outside of sports arenas.

The argument that the dress code will combat the pervasive materialism within hip-hop and the NBA is simultaneously compelling yet unpersuasive. While American popular culture is undoubtedly in desperate need of a powerful counter-narrative to capitalist greed and neo-liberal market worship, it is unclear how placing Carmelo Anthony in a turtleneck will help to realize that goal. If the NBA were genuinely concerned with challenging materialism, why not ban the endless string of commercials that accompany each NBA game, force all players to wear a generic, unmarked pair of sneakers, or stop licensing the $300 throwback jerseys that players are banned from wearing?

The answer, of course, is that such moves would force corporate elites to pay the price for their mendacious moralism. Moreover, the fact that NBA players are the primary subjects of critique, as opposed to other egotistical, pampered, and privileged figures like Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, and George W. Bush, betrays a selective moral indignation drawn along race and class lines.

Generational Differences
While it is true that the league is honestly responding to its fan base, it is important to clarify which generation of fans is being accommodated by the policy changes. In addition to the aforementioned sector of whites, the dress code also caters to the cultural and political preferences of baby boomer and civil rights generation fans, many of whom see hip-hop culture as a signpost of societal decline. Late baby boomers like Charles Barkley, who has strongly supported the dress code, are plagued by a vicious nostalgia that allows them to believe that the world is quickly deteriorating because of the hip-hop generation's failure to pick up the baton of nobility that they left behind. This is evidenced by Barkley's critiques of Iverson for lacking maturity and not fully appreciating the impact of his celebrity.

From this hypocritical and romantic posture, Barkley is able to forget his own brawls on and off the court, spitting on a seven-year-old girl (in all fairness, the saliva was intended for a nearby heckler), and his infamous "I am not a role model" declarations. More broadly, such nostalgia enables Barkley and his peers to forget the similar critiques levied against them early in their careers. Even Michael Jordan, the figure against whom all subsequent stars have been measured with regard to respectability, was an early casualty of generational warfare because of his (relatively) long shorts, gold chains, and Nike warm-up suits.

Leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who rightly offered support to Terrell Owens in his battle against the Philadelphia Eagles, have been curiously silent about the dress code policy. This is likely due to the huge ideological distance between the civil rights and hip-hop generations with regard to the politics of respectability. While many civil rights generation African Americans recognize the inherent racism in the dress code, they feel that the hip-hop generation lacks the moral and cultural authority to demand an inter-generational closing of ranks in response to it. Consequently, the hip-hop generation has been left to defend itself, so far unsuccessfully, from multiple fronts.

Where do we go from here?
Given the current climate of support and indifference, it is unlikely that the dress code will be drastically altered or eliminated in the near future. Fortunately, as in other sectors of American life, the NBA has grossly underestimated the capacity of its young black players to turn misfortune into resistance and creative splendor. In fact, even before the dress code policy, artists like Jay-Z were ushering the hip-hop generation into its "grown and sexy" stage, with throwback jerseys and white t-shirts being replaced by tailored suits and ties. Given our propensity toward what Melville Herskovitz called the "deification of accidence", it is safe to expect the hip-hop generation to respond to the dress code in ways that will ultimately transform the league and American popular culture.

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