Friday, October 21, 2005

Dressed By Race
By Ben Valentine

So it’s come to this… I’m posting a response to an issue that has underlying racial implications.

It’s a sign Sportszilla might be growing up; all major sports websites have their “blackest” writer comment on issues like this, as if we’re some type of pulse for the whole community. Being of African American ancestry, I qualified here. Besides, I always love to get involved in racial discussions like this. So here I am, ready to bring my opinion to the forefront. Ready not to be shocked?

I think the NBA’s dress code policy IS inherently racist. You can all breathe now.

Secondly, the NBA has the right to do what it wants with this in the end. And people, I’m not crying that the players have to buy suits. They can afford it. But that isn't what this is about. It isn't what I'm annoyed by.

I am frustrated by the reasoning behind this. Like it or not, there are racist undertones here. I didn’t want to think it, but when I reflect on the matter, I don’t see anyway around it.

David Stern is essentially saying the current attire of some (read: most black) NBA players is unpresentable. The unpresentable look being discussed is the hip hop style of baggy clothes, hats and jewelry. This look is, like it or not, a predominantly “black look.” Whites, Asians, Indians… hell anyone can and has sported it in the past, but it has become a trademark of black culture.

When David Stern is saying that look is unacceptable, he is saying “the attire for the 21st century African American is inferior and abhorrent compared to the supposed attire for 21st century mainstream white American.” And that my friends, is racist. It is placing the beliefs and culture of one part of society over another, no different than shunning someone because they came to work or school wearing a head wrap, dashiki or any other type of non- westernized dress. Just because the NBA can do it doesn’t mean it is any less racist. Not to get up on a soapbox here, but it goes against the trademark of what American society is supposed to be about. Equality means equal. If you are banning a certain type of dress from an event, then you are separating it from the norm. As said in the landmark Supreme Court Case Brown vs. Board of Education, “separate is inherently unequal.” A value has been assigned. In this case, white culture is better than “black” culture. That of course, is not equal. It is claiming the inferiority of one culture to another.

The dress code as a means for fans to relate to today’s players is a flimsy cover up. Stern couldn’t come out and say “I don’t like the way black people dress, so I’m doing something about it.” He conveniently passes the buck, claiming the same thing essentially, but putting the onus on the fans, marketing and the “greater good,” rather than on his personalized taste.

I say bull. That might fool some people but I personally won’t accept that type of garbage reasoning. I highly doubt just because Allen Iverson, Stephen Jackson or Greg Ostertag for that matter is dressed in a suit, suddenly they become a different person or more presentable to the NBA. I mean come on, when businessmen and fans go to a game, are they there to see what clothes the players are wearing? Does anyone think that fans that show up early and wait outside arenas are there to check out what type of Armani their favorite player is in? This a sporting event, not a damn fashion show here people.

Furthermore, the league’s reputation off the court is not changed by what the players wear, but rather by what they do. If a player gets busted doing 100 MPH with a loaded gun and trunk full of pot in his car, the lead story will not be what he was wearing at the time, or what he wore to the arena when he last played. As Zach pointed out to me as we discussed this, the socially presentable Charles Barkley once threw somebody through a window. And the games’ ambassador, Michael Jordan, who EVERYONE loves, was a compulsive gambler. (Among other things he may have done). Perception is a funny thing, isn’t it? Of course, nobody really cared in the end what those two did, because they were two of the greatest ever on the court. Just like the NBA’s ability to sell A.I. jerseys will directly correlate to how well he plays. People like winners; they don’t care how they dress.

Of course, realistically, most people will side with the NBA. They always do. David Stern is god’s gift to sports according to anyone who does anything with basketball. Plus I hate to say it, but a lot of these commentators are white as well. They don’t understand it, and probably never will because they are part of the mainstream. It is their norms and morays which are being enforced here. Why should they complain? They have no idea what it would be like to be told; "You've been dressing that way ever since you started here. Now I want you to change it because I decided one day, I didn't like it." This is beyond the realm of their comprehension for the most part.

Like I said earlier, the league is well within its rights to institute this policy. The players will deal and life will go on. When billions of dollars are involved, things always do. But that doesn’t change the underlying message here.

Black culture isn’t socially acceptable according to David Stern. That’s racist, no matter how many different ways you want to slice it and in a country of supposed freedom and racial “equality”, that is simply unacceptable.


Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Ben, not for the first time you've misinterpreted me. My point about players like Barkley and Jordan was that they got away with things a guy like AI wouldn't because, at least in part, of the way they dressed. You could never convince me that Jordan would have become the icon he did for mainstream America if he'd worn a doorag and protested against the government. He was black enough to be cool, but acted white enough to be non-threatening. That's why he could sell anything he wanted.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

I didn't mean to misinterpret the point, and for that I'm sorry.

However, I will continue to argue it's what you do on the court that matters. If Barkley and Jordan were sixth men, they wouldn't have been given slack. And in the end, the people who supposedly are complaining about what these players wear are only going to the games to see these players and teams play well. If A.I. wasn't in Philly and the Sixers sucked, it wouldn't matter if they had 12 of the most "socially presentable" people around. Nobody would go.

But like I said, the "presentable" argument is nothing more than league semantics. In the end, it's sending a message that black culture is inferior. That's the problem here.

1:16 AM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

OK. How many sixth men, on through tenth and twelfth men, regularly do things in their spare time that "respectable" mainstream white America would find distasteful, if not abhorrent? Specifically, I'm thinking about strip clubs, the groupies, marijuana, and so on and so forth, but there are probably other things I'm missing. Fans/consumers don't care what athletes do as long as it doesn't affect their play. In the NFL, see: Ray Lewis (to quote my friend, Ken, Lewis didn't actually stab the guy, but he did hold his arms down) and Jamal Lewis. In MLB, see Jason Giambi, who is "stained", but suddenly wasn't suffering the slings and arrows so much after the dingers returned. Choose your NBA player: Carmelo, who appeared in an underground video telling people not to snitch, Kobe, Stephen Jackson, and so on. I think athletes generally get a free pass from cultural criticism, so it doesn't really fly with me that Jordan and Barkley would've been vilified had they been players on the level of, say, Todd McCullough. What's the first thing that you think of when you read the name Kobe Bryant? It's the same thing everyone else thinks of, and it has nothing to do with basketball. Does it matter? I only know one person that was genuinely outraged by the whole thing. One. The rest of us who think Kobe did something bad were appalled in one way or another, but nobody decided to swear off the NBA because of it. No, I think the dress code issue goes somewhere other than saying that the "thug" look turns off wealthier (read: older, white) consumers.
This is a classic Michael Deaver maneuver: Stern is having the players dress more like corporate mainstream America because he's given up on actually changing the players' behavior through education and monetary deterrants. Instead of hoping for an influx of Michael Jordan types that embrace corporate culture, Stern has imposed the trappings of corporate culture in the hope that the image will assume the sheen of reality. The end result will be a BIG plus for the NBA and its players in that the players will appear to have "cleaned up their acts" when nothing much will have changed. When I was teaching a 7th grade class, I dressed like every other male teacher in the school. Why? Technically, it wasn't required, but I donned my Teacher Drag because I had to convey the image of Adult Authority. Maybe I was just a kid myself, masquerading as an adult, but because I successfully conveyed the image, the image became reality for my students. Same thing for "cleaning up the NBA". The racism angle becomes irrelevant once one realizes that the symbols of clothing are constructs meant to send signals and they're all an act. Remember, too, the dress code only applies while on NBA business, so it's not like Iverson has to wear a suit while going down to the grocery store.

2:55 AM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

I forgot to add... I don't have the numbers to prove it, but the "street" image and style probably brings in as many suburban dollars as the straight-laced style ever did and ever will. "Cleaning up" the image so that players are more "street" and less "thug" benefits everyone.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

I'm not sure we disagree on the first point. In fact one of my biggest points in this whole mess is the play of the players is what determines marketability, not dress.

Thus, I'm not quite sure how this actually sends any real message of cleaning up the NBA outside of "let's take away the street, i.e. black, culture out of the game because that's not as acceptable as white mainstream culture."

The truth is the image of the NBA has become a league of wild, uneducated black men who are lucky enough to make millions of dollars instead of selling drugs on a corner somewhere. This is a construct of American society based partially on fact (there are lot of players from poor neighborhoods) and fiction (just because you are poor doesn't mean you're wild, uneducated or predisposed to sell drugs). Since this image has to do with black people in America, rather than JUST the NBA, the dress code doesn't do and cannot do anything to change it. It's at best quick, surface fix and at it's worst an indictment on what people think about rap culture.

Perhaps I was shortsighted in seeing this as localized to the NBA. This is an issue which goes into America's own comfortablilty with black culture in general. In the end, the NBA won't benefit all that much, since their product's marketability is based on the court not off it. On the other hand it is disturbing that the way to "solve" the behavioral problem is to remove "the black" aspects from the game.

5:39 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

As for the first point, I'm saying that even the sucky players generally get a free pass.
Second, I stand by the assertion that the dress code is an implicit statement by Stern that he can't change the actual culture of the league, so he may as well impose an image upon it. The question is: if EVERY new star that comes into the NBA appears, to the casual Middle American fan, to be a clean cut guy, would the NBA's marketability increase because "urban" (see: black city dwellers) folk would still be buying based on street cred, while Middle America (see: white, middle class) would buy more based on the non-threateningness? If that proves to be true (and correlation/causation caveats would apply), it's a genius business move, and the players should embrace it as just another part of joining the league. Let's take this to a further logical conclusion: if Stephen Jackson is so upset about having a dress code while on NBA business, then why isn't he upset about the NBA's rules regarding on-court uniform wear? Isn't forcing tucked-in jerseys and not allowing on-court ice a violation of his individual expression? I don't see many And1 players with shirts tucked in. I think John's got it right when he says that there's a sense of entitlement and God complexes getting in the way of rational thinking.

3:06 AM  

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