A couple of weeks ago, the NBA announced–or decreed, rather–that they were implementing a new and stringent dress code for its most highly paid and highly visible employees. Several NBA players promptly spoke out against the rule, deeming it, at best, a capricious infringement on their individuality and self-expression and, at worst, a veiled, racist jab at the haberdashery of the league’s predominantly African-American stars.
I mostly laughed. I have a saying–“I can’t march to that”–that I reserve for issues I may agree with, in principle, but can’t really muster up the outrage or energy required to actually do something about. Yeah, like many others, I view the NBA’s new dress code as a pandering, hypocritical and self-serving move on the part of David Stern, who has largely built his commercial empire around the nexus of black/youth culture. But am I gonna lose sleep about this symbolic backhand directed at multi-millionaires? Nah. The recent passing of Rosa Parks is a stark reminder of the kinds of issues that were and are worth marching and mobilizing around.
That said, player vs. management conflicts in professional sports are generally intriguing to me to the extent that they stand proxy for several other schisms and dichotomies in our society. In this country, we tend to idealize sport, fantasizing a symbiotic triad between game, player and fan that cannot survive apart from one another. And then a situation like last year’s hockey lockout comes along and reminds us that our fantasies are but the end product of a larger fantasy-producing industry, which exists at the pleasure of what is, generally, a handful of rich, white men.
Is a player a producer of wealth or the property of an “owner”? Add a heaping helping of race to the mixture, and it gets even more interesting. Sport is a social scientist’s dream. It is entertainment, surely. The NBA has reaped billions by playing up the raw, visceral, frenetic and improvisational aspects of its “game.” It has profited handsomely from the marketing cachet of its young superstars, and in a country in which popular culture has almost always begged, borrowed or stolen heavily from black culture, the NBA has gone a step beyond, becoming virtually synonymous with black culture.
And all of this is well and good as long as it’s selling–I’ve seen kids on courts at midnight in China rocking the jerseys and sneakers of their far away idols, crossing each other over and pretending to be Iverson. It is definitely selling. And yet, back home, there’s an image problem. There is grumbling that the league is too “thugged out,” too “hip hop,” too ghetto, too … you get the picture. And step one to fix that perception, I guess, is to put everyone in a suit.
Of course the biggest black eye the league caught last year came in the form of the Kobe Bryant rape trial/soap opera. The same Kobe who was highly promoted by the league as this suave, urbane, fluent Italian-speaking, “different” kinda brother, the anointed heir to the ultimate NBA marketing icon, Michael Jordan. Kobe wore the most impeccable gear–his attire was literally GQ status, and yet the all-encompassing virtues of “the suit” didn’t protect him from that rape charge. The other major embarrassment to the league was Indiana Pacers vs. Inebriated Fans of Detroit. Granted, the players involved were actually in the game when that transpired, but somehow I doubt that a three-pieced Ron Artest would be less inclined to cold-cock a fan who doused his Armani gear with tepid Budweiser. I could be wrong, though. Apart from slightly beefed up security, I’ve heard of no plans to curb or curtail the lucrative alcohol sales that give some overzealous fans “beer muscles” and lead to lapses in judgment like dousing a giant with a drink.
Maybe the fans should wear suits? I don’t know. I wear suits from time to time but, admittedly, don’t even wear them regularly to church. No disrespect to the Lord or anything–my Sunday attire would be more considered business casual, but that just may be reflective of my personal conviction that neckties were designed by Satan. I’ve certainly never read anything about Jesus donning a sport coat. When I wear a suit, it’s for people.
I am blessed enough to be able to work from home. The company for whom I toil used to have one of the most staid and conservative images in corporate America, and its de facto uniform was blue suit, white shirt. Coming out of college, I was like “later for that.” I’d interned at an engineering firm and found the dress restrictions loathsome and oppressive, but I kinda needed to eat so I did what I had to do and kept it moving. Subsequent jobs, though, in IT, were a bit more relaxed. And slooowly the corporate culture has loosened to the extent that one now enjoys considerably more freedom in dress, provided there is no direct customer contact.
And that’s what’s up.
Thinking about these issues made me recall an incident from college, when I was playing football at Maryland. We were traveling to a game and I had on shoes, some nice slacks, a shirt. Our head coach was a fairly straight-laced kinda guy, and while not taken to choirboy extremes, we understood that we had to look “presentable.” It was cold out and I had a black leather bomber jacket and a black leather hat. Try as I might, that hat never looked right to me worn conventionally, so I had a habit of rocking it backward.
I stepped off the bus and took a step toward the stadium and one of the assistant coaches called out to me: “Hey Jennings! Turn that hat around. Look like you are somebody instead of like you’re trying to be somebody.”
Chagrinned, I fixed the hat, no doubt mumbling to myself that “I ain’t trying to be like nobody, I just like my hat better like this.”
That coach, Dick Portee, has been the running backs coach at N.C. State for several years now. I called him up to say hi and ask him what he thought about kids today and the subject of dress codes.
“I always say that you have to be prepared to deal with the real world in a real way. If you’re in a position where you can afford to wear what you want to wear, like the NBA players, then that’s OK. Well, until they instituted a dress code on you,” he said.
“It’s really all just perception. Because a kid dresses a certain way doesn’t make him a bad person. Nonetheless, in life there are rules to which you have to adhere. I think, ultimately, we all have to dress in a way that’s ‘presentable.’ And what’s presentable for you depends on your situation.”
I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, Coach Portee is much cooler now than he used to be.” He asked what I was doing now and I told him that I was a computer consultant. I passed up the chance to be contrarian and add “and I go to work in my drawz if I feel like it!”
Instead I agreed completely with his assessment and mentioned that even though I mostly wear sweats at home, I do throw on a suit or something when I need to meet with a customer.
In the “real world” there’s clearly a certain logic to being “presentable.” With nothing else to go on, it’s doubtful that an executive would trust me to be responsible for the performance of a system vital to a multi-billion dollar business if I show up at a meeting with my pants sagging off my behind and wearing a huge platinum medallion. That has no bearing on my abilities, of course, but knowing the culture, I understand perception and will make the common sense decision. The logic is much less clear, however, with the NBA, considering that some of the very attire they are outlawing is what the players wear on their jobs and, via merchandising, represents a very lucrative revenue stream.
My kids, much as I was, don’t go for designer clothes or have expensive tastes. My oldest son, however, when pressed on what he’d like for Christmas, mentioned an NBA jersey and an NFL hat. I did some point and click shopping around and saw where authentic NBA jerseys are going for $150! What part of the game is that? During the height of the throwback craze, league-licensed NBA and NFL jerseys were going for several hundred dollars apiece. Guess who fueled that madness/marketing bonanza? The very same youth who’re being told by the league to “tone the culture down a little bit” with the dress code. Ironic?
I still ain’t marching for them, though. I will point out, however, that one’s attire only goes so far in altering perception. I recall several instances from earlier in my career when, despite my wearing the all-important and professional suit, white ladies clutched their purses upon my entering an elevator. No, I wasn’t scowling, I actually keep a smile on my face most of the time–and probably none bigger than the one that crosses my face whenever I realize that some woman thinks I actually want to steal her purse. Or go Kobe on her, I guess. Please. All together now, the punch line to “What do you call a black man in a suit?”
Whatever. Their perceptions, their problems. I know one thing, though: If I were an NBA player, rather than attempting to appeal to anyone’s sympathies regarding my “plight,” I’d fight fire with fire. Or rather, fire red suits with orange stripes and about 17 buttons down the front. Don’t give that business to Brooks Brothers, brothers. Holla at Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders’ tailors, and all purveyors of fine lime green suits everywhere. The commissioner will beg them to throw the white T, jeans and boots back on. Trust.
And I have an even better idea for David Stern and company. If this is not some venal power play, and your sole and sincere motivation for enacting the dress code is to make the game more palatable to the sensibilities of (presumably) middle-aged white men who make up at least the majority of the sportscasters and writers constantly railing about the NBA players’ sartorial choices, why not cut out all of the middlemen? Use your considerable clout and resources to launch an alternative league: the NMAWMBA. That niche audience will be overjoyed at breathtaking displays of fundamentals, unseen since the days of Dr. Naismith himself. And meanwhile, the younger crowd will be able to sit through a game without being pestered by all them damn Viagra commercials.