Dressing Up Image A Fit For Black Men

October 29, 2005|By J. A. ADANDE | J. A. ADANDE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Any time we're talking about the image of the NBA, we're talking about the perception of the African American male.

So there's no way around the topic of race and its role in the league's new dress code. Not when almost 80 percent of the players are black, according to figures through last season.

But it's too simplistic to say this is strictly a matter of commissioner David Stern trying to wipe out the hip-hop wear so he can package the league to White America. First of all, does that mean black people don't want to see young men dress professionally? Does it imply that classy means "white" and casual means "black"? (Um, who do you think is keeping Birkenstock in business?)

So even though Stern's less-50-Cent- more-dollar-worthy objective makes the league more palatable to baby boomers and the folks in charge of sales and marketing at big companies, guess who will be the biggest beneficiary of the NBA's new "business casual" standard of at least slacks and collared shirts for team events? Young black males.

It's what former Georgetown coach John Thompson calls "unintended education."

I'm in favor of Stern's new rules strictly for the byproduct: It will be good for black kids to see black professionals dressed professionally. They should associate that with success, because in all reality they stand a much better chance of landing a well-paying job that requires them to wear wingtips rather than Nikes.

One of the sharpest lines to ever come out of Chuck D's mouth was in the title song on the He Got Game soundtrack.

"White men in suits don't have to jump," Chuck said.

It was a reminder to forget about the supposed athleticism gap played up in White Men Can't Jump and focus on what's really important: the uniform that represents employable skills.

There's a corporate backlash to the creeping casualness in offices. A USA Today story referenced a 2005 survey in which 49 percent of employers said that "non-traditional attire would have a `strong influence' on their opinion of a candidate" - up 11 percent from the 2002 survey.

There are enough negative stereotypes surrounding blacks that they can't afford to have "slacker" added to the list just by what they wear. The best tip I learned from the college internship I did with a Chicago TV reporter named Art Norman came in a phone conversation before I started.

"Wear a tie," Norman told me. "As a black man, that's your badge of respect."

John Thompson wore a tie every day as a student at Brown Junior High in Washington, D.C., five decades ago. There were no white people in sight. Didn't matter. It's what was right.

Unfair dress requirements? He always thought it was a dumb idea for college basketball coaches who were hopping out of their seats, pacing the sidelines and squeezing between sweaty players to have to wear business attire.

"But you were representing the university," Thompson said. "That's the most idiotic thing I've ever seen, to have to wear a coat and tie [while coaching]. I didn't like that. But all of us have to do some things."

One of the reasons some players are reacting negatively to the dress code is they're not used to having the rules of society apply to them. I can't tell you how many times I've been to nightclubs with strict no-hats, no-sneakers policies, only to see NBA players and their boys clad in caps and sneakers roll right in.

Thompson kept a tight wrap around his program no matter what the outsiders thought. He was so committed to his principles that he walked off the court to protest NCAA legislation he believed adversely affected minorities.

But he was wearing a coat and tie when he did it. Because long ago he learned a bit of truth that just hit the NBA players.

"Somebody in life's in charge, and it ain't always you," Thompson said. "That's the biggest lesson that [Stern's] teaching."

Thompson was in charge at Georgetown. He had a dress code for everyone - even a freshman with a troubled background named Allen Iverson.

"Allen wore a coat and tie," Thompson said, "and didn't rebel against wearing it."

Now Iverson has become the runway model for the look the league wants to eliminate, and Iverson has also been the voice of dissent.

"I respect and love Allen, but I differ with his opinion on this," Thompson said. "I think this is based on some of the things that have occurred in the league over the last year [most notably the player-fan melee in Detroit]. If nothing else, you've got a perception problem."

So we're back to perception. One of the benefits black people don't enjoy is the freedom to be judged on one's individual actions, not by the race as a whole. Iverson, who has come to represent the NBA even though most players already meet or exceed the new dress requirements, has the power to change that.

"Allen is not a hard sell," Thompson said. "He'll stand up for what he believes, but he can be easily convinced if he believes it's for the good of young kids."

And that's what the dress code is, regardless of why it came into existence.

J.A. Adande writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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