Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is the NBA Dress Policy a Pretext for Racial Discrimination?

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)


  1. professor lacy:

    if the league is promoting its product to the hip hop generation (through nba ballers, etc) then it appears hypocritical that it would then regulate and punish its players for participating in hip hop culture.

    at the same time,it also appears that both decisions (to promote the nba to the hip hop generation and to prohibit nba players from dressing in hip hop garb) are bottom line financial decisions. the nba wants to increase its earning potential by licensing its product to whoever can provide it and its owners with greater revenue (nba ballers, etc.) while at the same time protecting its image to the primarily white fan base (through the nba dress code). as usual, the foundation for both decisions is money. and, as usual, the individuals in the power positions, that stand to earn the most money, are the owners, almost entirely white men.

    money is king. identity, expression and individualism is an easy sacrifice for profits.

  2. Money is king. What is interesting to me is that same multi-million dollars players that have issue with complying with the rules of the NBA, have no issue accepting the outrageous salaries that that NBA product supports. The fan base will not support or grow with the current packaging you change that packaging. That is what the NBA is doing.

    If players have such issue with the rules, then there may be other leagues with less regulations. I personally do not have issue with dissuading the thuggery and blatant materialism that has pervaded the game for so long. Particularly when I enjoy the game and in the past have found it challenging to support the league when trying to raise a young son. I do not support the hip-hop lifestyle as it goes well beyond clothing choices. If the NBA promotes that, then I will not support the NBA. I think it is refreshing for young men getting paid lots of money to act, dress in a professional manner.

  3. This is simply another example of society's collective conventionalism and fear of any notion that may come off as different. Heaven forbid, for lack of a better-suited connotation, a group of individuals, persons unique in their culture and beliefs, don't conform to what we're socialized to deem acceptable. To me, and my opinions are merely that, the NBA provides certain justifications that pass muster, but then the question becomes why do these reasons justify the obviously racially-based dress code? The answer seems to be lurking somewhere in the realm of the status quo, and our conjoined fear of anything that seems to push the envelope. I'd like to think that we, as intelligent members of society, can formulate our own moral opinions and conduct ourselves accordingly, without relying on the suppression of racial expression to shape our every move. I pride myself on the fact that I can think for myself, and if I want to wear baggy clothes, a platinum chain, and Air Force Ones, then that is simply my prerogative. I also understand that professional athletes are in a different position due to the amount of money they are paid to play their respective sport, but the hip hop culture that the NBA tries so hard to stifle is the very thing that produced all of these gifted men. Let's not overstate the problem and attempt to fashion a remedy that is nothing more than a stereotype, if one dreams of becoming the next president, I'm sure that person's style of dress will conform accordingly. We will never get over the racial hump until we take personal responsibility in our own lives and realize we are accountable for our own actions, and for shaping our children into valuable members of society.

  4. I disagree. I do not see it hypocritical that the NBA promotes a game like NBA Ballers on the one hand and then enacts a dress code on the other, and here's why.

    A videogame is meant to be enjoyed. It's entertainment. There's nothing "professional" about it. The NBA wants their high-priced commodities (i.e., players) to give an appearance of professionalism, and dressing in a hiphop style does not connote that.

    It's similar to the "And-1" stuff. That's what the NBA ballers game is all about: one-on-one, showboating, larger-than-life entertainment. It's fun, but it's not what the NBA wants to promote. The NBA obviously wants to promote a team atmosphere, on the other hand.

    While I agree that the dress code is going to have a disparate impact on black players, it's simply beacuse they are the ones dressing in hiphop styles, not the other players. It is what it is.

    I have no problem with the NBA, as an employer saying, "Dress how you like in your off time. We want you to look professional when you come to work."

  5. A video game is meant to be enjoyed, its entertainment, however, both are entertainment and its tough to digest that my work gear is a basketball jersey but I cant wear a basketball jersey to work. The fact (and point of the NBA ballers comment) is that the NBA has embraced the hip hop lifestyle as a money making prospect but then wants to distance itself from it in other regards. That is the hypocracy in it all. Its not like an employer saying "Dress how you like in your off time," because when I come to work and when I leave work is my own time but the NBA dress code dictates how the players dress at these times. I have a hard time coming up with a job where an employer dictates how its employees dress when they are coming to and going from work. Can you think of any?

  6. Mark,

    Are you suggesting that if I get paid a certain amount I lose my right to complain about employer rules? The fan base is supporting the product that the NBA is putting out there right now. Are you suggesting that you have an easier time explaining the way the NBA treats women as objects(as almost every team does with the way they have their cheerleaders dressed) than the way some players dress?

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  10. The military dictates what you wear going and coming from work. You cannot even wear a backpack with your uniform. And they don't get paid squat, so don't go there.

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