The NBA Dress Code - Yes, it's Racist

By Jason Wojciechowski on October 25, 2005 at 2:08 AM

I haven't weighed in on the new NBA dress code, in part because that's not really my area and in part because I didn't have anything to add that wasn't being said better elsewhere. I proofread a paper for Austen today, though, that gave me a little germ of an idea I'd like to mention here. Also, and I'll talk about this first, I want to mention something from my experience teaching high school in the Bronx and living in New York in general.

The school I taught in was almost exclusively Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African American (what de-segregation?). Everybody, for the most part, dressed alike, in the "urban" style that the NBA wants its players to stop wearing: baggy jeans, sagged low, often adorned with logos; big t-shirts, often knee-length, often plain, solid-colored; hooded sweatshirts; do-rags; flat-brimmed hats cocked at a variety of angles, depending on mood; and visible gaudy jewelry. (Note, of course, that I'm just talking about males here; there were females in the school, but we're not worried about them in a discussion of the NBA's dress code.)

I've noticed the argument that the dress code is reflective of a generation gap between the players and the owners, rather than a race one, because older black men don't wear the clothes these young kids in the NBA wear. That, however, would come as news to many of the fathers I met while I was teaching, as well as many of the 35-years+ Black and Latino men I've seen walking around the city. Perhaps this is a localized phenomenon, and in most parts of the country, the "urban" style stops being the primary mode of dress as men get older. From my experience here, though, I'm not ready to dismiss the racial theory based purely on a supposed generation gap in dress.

The other (and, I think, more important) point is about the idea that David Stern, et al., aren't being racist against the players, they're merely protecting their multi-billion dollar business by making adjustments to please the people who spend money on their product. Stern and the owners, the argument goes, don't have anything personal against the players; they're just doing the smart business thing and making their employees dress in a way that their sponsors and fans want them to dress.

Even supposing that's true, is the act of furthering institutional racism morally less reprehensible than practicing personal racism? If the sponsors and (white) fans want the players to change, it's because they think the players dress like thugs, like gang-bangers, like street-corner hustlers. They've heard that these styles came from the prisons, where the inmates are forced to wear baggy clothing (another assertion I'm not certain about, though I could be convinced by research). In short, the players scare them. This fear, and the demand that black men conform to a white standard, is the epitome of institutional racism, and it is disgusting.

The NBA has the economic power to resist this pressure. Will people really stop watching (paying) because Kobe Bryant wants to show up in a throwback jersey when he's injured? Because Allen Iverson wants to wear his flat-brimmed hat on the sidelines when he's banged up? And if people keep watching, will the advertisers stop buying TV time?

The league could, instead of caving, continue to promote their players and the good work they do in their communities. It could educate its fans (and sponsors), showing them that the players, regardless of how they're dressed (or what color their skin is), are not boogeymen, not thugs, not street-corner bangers.

But the NBA gave in. The league decided that, rather than help create positive change by allowing people to be themselves, they'd help push the country farther backward in the racial equality department, demanding assimilation (whitification) from its young black employees.

No, I'm not blind to the fact that some NBA players do stupid things. Tony Allen has come off pretty thuggish in the last few weeks. Carmelo Anthony made that appearance in a "Stop Snitchin'" DVD. But would Allen wearing a suit on the airplane have stopped him from ordering a beat-down? Would Carmelo removing the bling on the sideline keep him from shooting that video in the off-season? Of course not.

The issue is perception, specifically the perceptions of a bunch of white men who live in tony suburbs and gated communities, and whose perceptions are, frankly, racist ones.

The NBA, by allowing itself to be pushed around by racist sentiments, is taking on the despicable role of the enabler.