The NBA has celebrated the very lifestyle it now seeks to eradicate. For years the NBA has done everything it can to benefit from a relationship with hip hop. It hired British comedian Sasha Cohen (aka Ali G) to promote the NBA in television commercials. In the commercials Cohen is dressed in a track suit accessorized by a bulky chain while wearing a skull cap and wrap-around sunglasses. His attire expresses the very same street or hip hop culture that the NBA now prohibits.
In addition, the NBA has licensed a video game called “NBA Ballers” which pitches itself as the exclusive one-on-one basketball video game highlighting the bling bling lifestyle of NBA superstars. In the game, players take on the identity of actual NBA stars and accumulate “mansions, cars, jewelry, women – if you’ve spotted it on MTV cribs, you’re going to see it here.” And finally, a Nike advertisement on NBA.com featured Allen Iverson alongside 50 Cent. These types of advertisements and video games show the mutually reinforcing connections between sports and hip hop.
In October of 2005, the NBA implemented a new dress code for players. The code, which specifies appropriate league-business dress styles for players, requires players to wear “business casual attire whenever they are engaged in team or league business," meaning a long or short sleeved dress shirt (collared or turtle neck) and/or a sweater; dress slacks, khakis or dress jeans; and appropriate shoes and socks, not including sneakers, sandals, flip flops or work boots. The code also directly prohibits players from wearing certain types of clothing, particularly clothing that society links to hip-hop culture, which has been negatively stereotyped and racialized as black. Specifically, the code prohibits the wearing of sleeveless shirts, shorts, t-shirts, jerseys, sports apparel, chains, pendants, medallions, sunglasses while indoors, and headphones and headgear of any kind while a player is placed on the bench, seated in the stands at a game or making an appearance for media interviews or a team or league event. There are three exceptions to this policy. The first exception is stricter than the usual policy and requires players who are in attendance at games but not in uniform to wear a sports coat, dress shoes or boots and socks while seated on the bench or in the stands. The second exception allows players to wear either business casual attire or neat warm-up suits that are issued by their teams as they are leaving the basketball arena. The third and final exception permits players to wear attire that is not business casual at special events or player appearances where other attire would be appropriate, such as at basketball clinics.
The announcement of these rules sparked a number of claims from players, journalists and commentators that these policies are motivated by racial stereotypes. Commentators and players alike argued that the rules are targeted at negative media-driven hip hop images of young black men, who make up the vast majority of the league. Stephen Jackson said “As far as chains, I definitely feel that’s a racial statement. Almost 100% of the guys in the league who are young men and black wear big chains. So, I definitely don’t agree with that. The new ban on chains worn over clothing is a racist statement from the league. Paul Pierce proclaimed “when I saw the part about chains, hip hop and throwback jerseys, I think that’s part of our culture. The NBA is young black males. Phil Jackson made the following comment, which essentially displays the way in which young black men, hip hop and criminality have become so linked in the minds of the American public: “The players have been dressing in prison garb the last five or six years. All the stuff that goes on, its like gangster, thuggery stuff." Similarly, black columnist Jason Whitlock declared, “Too many young black professional athletes have too closely aligned themselves with the hip hop culture, which in reality is nothing more than prison culture.” Jason Richardson wants to keep wearing his gold chains and believes the dress code take aim at black players in the league. He said, "they want to sway away from the hip hop generation. You think of hip hop right now and think of things that happen like gangs having shootouts in front of radio stations. One thing to me that was kind of racist was that you can’t wear chains outside your clothing."
One commentator said, "Although a couple of foreign-born players fall under this policy and maybe a few white guys such as Jason Williams, this is all pointing toward blacks. NBA Commisioner David Stern had to do something when the thuggish image had taken over the sport and things had gotten out of control." Another commentator claimed that a reading of the rules made clear that the NBA does not want hip hop culture, including its clothes, to be part of the NBA image. The NBA helped launch the trend of baggy jerseys and chunky gold chains adopted by teenagers around the world. But now the NBA is attempting to take the bling out of basketball. Some players and commentators have denounced the dress code as racist for targeting the hip hop look adopted by many of the NBA’s young black players. Its purposes, critics claim, is to make a predominantly black league more palatable to a predominately white audience. Allen Iverson says, "they are targeting my generation, the hip hop generation." The truth remains that while the majority of the NBA players are black, the majority of the coachers and owners are white. If nothing else, the dress code reinforces the fact that the so-called hip hop generation is seen as second class citizens when they dress a certain way. Wrote Whitlock, "Race is not the determining factor when it comes to having a good or bad attitude; culture is. And the hip hop culture is all about attitude, anger, sticking it to the man, selfishness and rebelliousness. Black players didn’t behave this way until this hip hop gangsta business began. Hip hop athletes are being rejected because they are not good for business."
The fact is that race is socially constructed. It is formed through human interactions and commonly held notions of what it means to belong to a certain racial group. In other words, in our society, markers other than just one’s skin color, such as clothing and hairstyle, play a role in defining a person’s race. When it comes to discrimination, how one performs his or her racial identity matters almost as much as how one looks. The fact is that race has a greater meaning than skin color or tone; it is also about performance, how one displays his racial identity. The problem for those who want to impose these rules to the players in the NBA is not that the players have black skin, not that they are “black” as the term is physically defined, but rather that they are performing their identities in a way that comports with stereotypes accorded generally to blacks. In a league that is eighty percent black, the NBA’s response to the infiltration of hip hop culture into the league has a negative effect on the employability of the black male athlete.
- D. Aaron Lacy
(Photo by Gary Dineen/Getty Images)