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Wall Street Journal


NBA Stars Should Trade 'Street' Clothes for Dignified Duds

November 08, 2005

By John H. McWhorter

Symbols matter. That's ABC for most black Americans when it comes to, say, Confederate flags, and for some black Americans, even when it comes to the mere utterance of a word like "niggardly."

But last month, star black basketball players were suddenly blind to the nature of symbolism when the National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern initiated a dress code for players when they make public appearances. From now on, basketball players representing their employers will wear sport jackets -- and save the sunglasses, headphones, baggy sweatpants, massive jewelry, sideways baseball caps and do-rags for clubbing later that night.

"You shouldn't judge a person by what they wear," Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets complains. But surely he does -- as all humans do. To push it a bit, we presume Mr. Camby would revise his statement if a white man came to interview him in a white sheet and hood. When an interviewee is wearing shades and headphones indoors, we read this as aloof. When someone dresses in a style associated with rebellion and "da street," big surprise, we think of rebellion.

And, really, that is exactly what these guys are going for. The "gangsta" dress is a pose. It means, first, surly detachment. And then, there is also a hint of violence, channeled especially through the music closely tied in with the gangsta routine. We're in the realm of "street" -- which in this case refers not simply to asphalt, but to the notion that one is able to handle himself on said streets, presumably violent ones. The 76ers' Allen Iverson objected to the new policy with "You can put a murderer in a suit and he's still a murderer." Not the most useful image to have chosen -- but, in a way, nicely making my point.

In fact, the very reason for the dress code is that the NBA has been getting a reputation as a haven for menace lately. Last November the Indiana Pacers' Ron Artest and some other players jumped into the stands and started a brawl at a game in Detroit after a spectator tossed a drink at Mr. Artest. Public polls, as well as ones conducted by the NBA itself, show that basketball players are increasingly unpopular as public figures. The TV ratings for the NBA finals last June were 29% lower than those of the year before.

Stephen Jackson of the Pacers grouses that the NBA is afraid of being seen as "too hip-hop" -- well, given the public doings of rappers who provide the soundtrack to the dress style, is the NBA completely out of its mind? Footnote: Mr. Jackson was one of the people in the Detroit brawl.

Again, symbols matter. The NBA is a business. For people less hip to the thrall of the streets than Messrs. Camby and Iverson, the unwelcoming air of the "gangsta" dress style, and the demeanor that often comes with it, gets old after a while. For Commissioner Stern to remove this routine from the corporate image of the company he is running is common sense. The rap industry makes billions selling professional hostility and unfocused cynicism. It has never been that way for professional sports teams, and never will be.

Of course, there is the racism angle. Apparently Mr. Stern is denying "part of our culture," as Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics has it. Here comes the perniciously seductive notion that for black nonfemale persons under 45, "thug" is the blackest thing to be. Hence Mr. Camby can suggest with a straight face that the NBA should provide a clothing budget for the sport jackets -- when he makes $8 million a year. Only a sense that even as a multimillionaire he remains, on some level, "poor" like "real" black people could have allowed this to fall out of his mouth.

But since when is playing a thug -- even if only on television -- the essence of black authenticity? Neither players in the grand old Negro Leagues nor even black Major League players as late as the '80s were dressing like this when the cameras were rolling.

Young men all over the world enjoy playing tough, sure. But there's something else that young men, as well as everyone else, do all over the world, and that is to dress differently for work than they do at home or at a bar.

The fact that black people have suffered so much in this country does not exempt black men in athletics from this -- nor even does the fact that racism is not utterly unknown now. Nor should it. We did not fight for our freedom to be rebels. We fought for our freedom to be normal.

The idea that poverty, violence and rebellion are the heart of being black is not normal, nor is it deep. It is outdated, counterproductive and self-indulgent. The NBA players might even find that wearing jackets on camera enlarges their "culture," which will add to their repertoire of dress styles. Call it a new kind of multiculturalism -- or maybe we can just call it civility.

Original Source:



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