Pressing Policy Won't Iron Out Kinks

October 29, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

The NBA regular season opens next week, and the league has an image problem. The things the players do wrong and the ways they present themselves poorly are on everybody's minds.

NBA officials, including the once-infallible commissioner, can blame nobody but themselves.

Instead of talking about the chance of a San Antonio Spurs repeat, the world inside and outside pro basketball is talking about how sloppy, disrespectful and ungrateful the players are. Instead of dissecting the story lines surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat, people are examining the divides in and around the league along racial, cultural and generational lines.

Instead of appreciating the talents of Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan, debating the Most Valuable Player credentials of Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal, or arguing the upsides of LeBron James and Dwight Howard, everyone is listing the do's and don'ts, the acceptable and unacceptable, of what they wear as they walk from the team bus into their locker room.

It's all because the NBA badly overreacted to what might be the most superficial criticisms ever espoused about any sports league: the way some players (not all, probably not even most) dress when they're not on the floor.

In unloading a dress code so publicly, punitively and paternally on its players, the NBA took a serious issue - the perceptions about the league compared to other major sports, and whether they are myth or reality - and allowed it to be reduced to a series of one-liners about millionaires who don't respect their bosses and punk kids who need to learn how grown-ups dress for work.

This was so pointless, so arbitrary, so antagonistic and self-defeating, it's a wonder baseball never thought of it.

It has only gotten worse since the code became official, because the national firestorm it created has obliterated every other scrap of news about the NBA on the eve of its season.

It won't stop on opening night, either. On the contrary, there will be more cameras, more talk and more eyes trained on that walk from the bus than on the game itself, more directed toward the inactive players on the bench than toward the active ones on the court.

If the NBA wanted to steal some thunder from the NFL, college football and the World Series, there were better ways to do it. Now, it has accomplished the feat of pushing even the tale of the Minnesota Vikings' Love Boat cruise, for example, further from the spotlight than it deserves to be. In the past week, it was the dress code that made the front page of The Sun and The Washington Post, not the Vikings.

It has always been extremely questionable whether the negative perceptions of the league ever had any validity anyway. Now that this issue has blown up, so have the parameters of the question. If somebody describes an outfit as gangsta, thuggish, or too hip-hop, is anybody required to care? If some vague, statistically unproven segment of the public lets the way a player dresses before or after a game determine their support for the sport, is the league obligated to pander to it?

What has made the NBA special for a long time, especially during its Magic-Larry-Michael renaissance, was the way it overturned the old ways of thinking. In fighting the same "image problems" then that it faces now, the league chose the enlightened path.

The NBA told fans that no matter their preconceptions about which players are heady or athletic, hardworking or naturally gifted, fundamentally sound or street-savvy, all of them are worthy of your admiration and respect. If you're hung up about skin issues, it said, that's your loss, not ours.

Now the NBA tries to recall those headier times ... by imitating the way Michael Jordan dressed for interviews.

Now, it knocks its own product the way baseball does at its worst moments. It strives for social conformity the way the NFL did in turning itself into the Teflon league. (Shouldn't a sport whose players have been jailed for murder be the one with an image problem, rather than one whose players wear baggy jeans?)

The sad thing is that if the NBA had dug deep, it would have discovered some reality to counter the myths. Its popularity crosses more generational, racial, cultural and socio-economic barriers than one might believe. Plenty of followers aren't terrified by the sight of a gold chain or the sound of Ludacris on the public-address system. Even the supporters and defenders of the dress code don't fit neatly into prescribed boxes.

But those broad-minded hoop followers seem to be scarce in sports sections, talk-radio stations or ad agencies, or wherever the NBA places its trust on public opinion these days. It was time to concoct something to appease the naysayers. Squeaky wheel, you know.

So what's next? Mandatory haircuts, maybe, to get rid of those "unprofessional" cornrows and dreads. Or a curfew at sundown. Or outlawing dunking, the way colleges once did.

If all else fails? The NBA could promote basketball. You know, the thing happening on the court, not in the back hallways of the arena.

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