Fashion faux pas

October 29, 2005|By MARJORIE VALBRUN

WHERE IS Mr. Blackwell when you need him?

You would think National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern would have had the good sense, or at least the good taste, to enlist the well-known arbiter of high fashion to help explain the league's new dress code before sending players, sports writers and fans into apoplectic fits over a policy that is routine in normal workplaces.

Instead, everybody was left to come up with disparate interpretations of the policy requiring players to wear "business casual attire" when "engaged in team or league business." The announcement last week touched off a wide-ranging public discourse on race and culture, image and style, profits and marketing, and generational and class divides.

Under the new policy, players must trade in sleeveless shirts, shorts, throwback jerseys and non-team sports apparel for dress slacks, khaki pants or dress jeans. Headgear and headphones are not allowed on the bench, in the stands, during media interviews or when appearing at league events. Chains, pendants and medallions - in other words, bling - are out, unless worn under clothes and out of view.

The resulting accusations of hypocrisy were understandable. Mr. Stern's action signaled a desire to distance the league from its stereotyped image as a collection of street-tough, off-the-butt-baggy-jean-wearing young black men, which not all the players are. This obvious pandering to the paying fans, who have become increasingly more white over the years - and, some allege, more white-collar - as ticket prices have soared, reeks of insincerity.

Some fans have indeed grown uncomfortable with some players' boorish behavior and unfairly equated such conduct with the way they dress, but Mr. Stern was also likely influenced by consistently lagging television ratings of NBA games. He seemed to be reaching to reverse that trend by requiring the players to undergo makeovers that might reflect the dapper Michael Jordan rather than the thuggish look of Allen Iverson.

Mr. Stern should focus instead on how players behave off the courts. Their run-ins with police, their trouble with women and allegations of domestic violence and even rape, their refusal to acknowledge or pay child support for children they fathered with groupies and girlfriends, their excessive materialism and self-centeredness, all have done more harm to the NBA's image than their fashion statements.

Mr. Stern should have chosen to increase the life-skills counseling the league offers to help younger players negotiate overnight stardom, manage their millions, avoid legal trouble and make better decisions. If propriety and etiquette are the goals, he should end the light punishment players receive for their misdeeds, and the coddling and excuse-making by their NBA handlers.

But if there has to be a dress code, why not also focus on the mostly white, spandex-wearing cheerleaders whose outfits leave little to the imagination? Their dance routines lean more on eroticism than athleticism, and if you didn't get the point, the sexual innuendos in the loud accompanying rap music are inescapable.

The new dress code seems aimed at players like Mr. Iverson with "gangsta" personas and wardrobes to match. Yet he is among the NBA's most popular players, and his No. 3 jersey is among the league's best-sellers. Still, when the NBA featured him on the cover of the league magazine in 2001, his cornrows and the tattoos that cover his body were airbrushed out, a misstep for which Mr. Stern later apologized.

The NBA personalities, whether rough-edged players or clean-cut boy wonders, are important to the game. Fans pay top dollar to see them soar through the air and put the ball in the basket with stunning artistry, and some fans also look to them for the latest "urban" fashion trend. What they wear off the court is irrelevant to how they play on it - dress code or no dress code.

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