National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern
Any time you go head-to-head with millionaires who are twenty years younger and a foot taller than you while setting yourself up to be accused of racism, you’re either a hero or a fool. The distinction rests on whether you’re engaging in such risky conduct for a good reason and in the case of David Stern’s decree that players in the National Basketball Association have to stop appearing in public dressed like rappers, his reasons are good enough.
If he isn’t beaten down and called a racist until he reverses himself, of course.
Disturbed by photos of NBA stars like Allen Iverson watching games from the bench dressed in ragged shirts, oversized jeans and baseball caps turned sideways, Stern has established a dress code that will be enforced with fines. “Business casual” jacket and slacks is the order of the day. Players and some commentators are calling “foul,” or more specifically, “race.” The fashion Stern is banning is primarily a street style called hip-hop, ghetto or gangsta and favored by young African American men, who, just coincidentally, happen to make up the majority of the NBA’s players. The players, in turn, are the heroes and role models of many of the youth who popularized the gangsta look in the first place. The difference is that the players already have jobs and financial security. If they choose to appear in public dressed in the disheveled manner of ghetto toughs it may reflect adversely on their taste or maturity level, but it isn’t going to hamper them in a job interview.
Stern has many motives for asking his players to dress in a professional manner, some of which are pure public relations and bottom line oriented. The NBA, which has marketed hard and successfully to the hip-hop crowd, realizes that it can’t afford to alienate middle class white basketball fans either, and the symbolism of hip-hop attire (which loosely translated is “I choose not to abide by the dictates of opprobrium preferred by my Caucasian compatriots”) can be an irritant. But it is always prudent to remind the young and too often arrogant millionaires of the NBA that their conduct and demeanor has a great deal of influence on the young, who unlike Iverson and his pals do need to learn how to dress professionally and do need to know what employers regard as appropriate dress.
Sports Illustrated columnist Phil Taylor, one of the legion of sportswriters who have criticized Stern, has argued that the league should focus on the unattractive behavior illegitimate births, drug use, lawbreaking, violence and irresponsible lifestyles of many of its stars rather than crack down on their clothing. “Sure, the league has a right to be concerned with the image its players present to the public, but a man’s clothes are not necessarily a reflection of his character,” he wrote. “Maybe the NBA ought to trust its fans to realize that.”
Why, Phil? The rest of the America doesn’t “realize that,” because it isn’t true. The way someone presents himself to the world speaks volumes about that individual’s seriousness, ambition, level of maturity and responsibility, modesty, manners and respect for those around them. Just because none of those qualities have much to do with being a star in the NBA doesn’t mean that the league is wrong to try to foster those values, and appearance is a start.
If it isn’t yet time for young NBA fans to safely emulate the way their heroes conduct themselves, at least Stern is making it possible for them to learn from how the players look when they represent their employers. That lesson alone can make a big difference.
Stick to your guns, Larry. You’re doing the right thing.