R. Reese, Cal Poly Pomona, Political Science, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, A14, December 4, 2005
NBA Dress Code: Rebels Can Learn Something from Old Role Models
The new controversial NBA dress code went into effect on November 1. NBA players are reluctantly adapting to the mandated business casual attire. The new code states that players can no longer arrive or leave games wearing headphones, sunglasses while indoors, T-shirts, flip-flops, `do rags, shorts, sleeveless shirts, chains, medallions or pendants. At post-game news conferences, they cannot wear replica or throwback jerseys and baseball caps. A Michael Jordan led movement or a Player's Association agreement would have been less contentious. Some disgruntled NBA players have stated the new code is racially biased. This is a legitimate argument. (However, for years, there has been a strict dress code in the National Hockey League.) Although the culprits of the image makeover are concerned with appeasing the mostly white paying customers and not black kids who emulate their favorite basketball stars, the NBA's decision may have positive side effects.
Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and other players on their Olympic team were invited to a dinner in their honor at one of the finest hotels in Belgrade last year. While the Serbian National team attended the function in matching sport coats, the U.S. players came wearing baggy jeans, sweat suits, oversized shirts, shining jewelry, and tennis shoes. Larry Brown, the coach of the team, was appalled and embarrassed by his players' attire and lack of etiquette.
The new dress code is forcing a generation of black athletes who have unwittingly embraced the gangsta-thug persona to embrace a more professional image. Many teachers, coaches, and parents are applauding the NBA's decision. Whether the players like it or not, they are role models. Their behavior has a significant influence on youth. Moreover, a person's dress has an impact on their behavior and self-image. This was the belief of legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. He made all of his players wear suits to games. This is also the philosophy of the Nation of Islam. Members of this organization preach black empowerment in the inner city in suits and bow ties. Wearing suits has not undermined their activism or black consciousness. The Nation has for years lobbied black men to dress in ways that will make people take them seriously. Many young black men, however, have erroneously made a correlation between professional dress and selling out.
Today the earrings, jewelry, tattoos, and expressive behaviors are used effectively to tell fans and the general public, "I'm not a role model." In many ways, today's black athletes have rebelled against the image of the Ideal Negro--the image of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Julius Erving, David Robinson and opted to (unknowingly) follow the path of the rebellious, reckless, and flamboyant black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Ironically, to be considered the ideal role model, is the worst label a contemporary black athlete can have. It means they have sold out and bought into the system. Few black athletes take the risk of undermining their street cred .
The burden of being a perfect role model is daunting and formidable for anyone. However, it is especially difficult for young black men because they live in a society that sends mixed messages about those with wholesome images. Ironically, their drive to be role models and their drive to be perceived as "real" black men are mutually exclusive. In other words, in order to have one identity, they must give up the other.
Today's black athletes must learn that there was character in the humility of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. There was strength in the discipline of Jackie Robinson. There was courage in the activism of Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali. There was integrity in the grace of Dr. J. and David Robinson. These athletes were ideal citizens, not sell-outs. They were inspirational representatives of the black community. They were quintessential American heroes and role models. Today's young black athletes should first learn about and then strive to emulate these individuals. Perhaps the new NBA dress code is the first step in inspiring this generation of players to pay tribute to the professionalism of an earlier generation of noble trailblazers.
Renford Reese, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department and the Director of the Colorful Flags Program at Cal Poly Pomona University. Reese lectures regularly to inmates in California correctional facilities. He is the author of American Paradox: Young Black Men (2004) and the forthcoming book (2006) Prison Race. http://www.csupomona.edu/~rrreese