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With its announcement of new rules about what players may wear off court as representatives of the game, the NBA is having a Bill Cosby moment. Many people assume the league is reacting to the historically nasty melee between players and fans during a game in Detroit last year that resulted in nine players being suspended or fined and that turned Indiana Pacer Ron Artest into a league pariah. But it’s not hard to imagine that the grizzled Cosby’s ongoing tirade against black youth and their aggressively oversize, overdone fashions — call it ghetto fabulous — also inspired the NBA to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward neck chains, do-rags, T-shirts and other wardrobe staples of not only ballplayers, but of young black men in big cities everywhere. (That Cosby held a town-hall meeting in Compton the day after the new dress code debuted seems coincidental, to put it mildly.)
But the move to censure clothes rather than behavior or comportment is dishonest in more ways than one. Whatever you think of Cosby, he has always been clear in his condemnation of black folk wearing clothes he views as reflective of a bigger moral breakdown in the community at large; with its new bans, the NBA is making the same racial connections and moral arguments without spelling out either. Unlike Cosby, the NBA wants to appear assertive but neutral. Outlawing looks favored by its overwhelmingly black roster, the league gets to play bad cop in a good-cop guise, focusing on wardrobe as a kind of broken window that, if left unchecked, could lead to more serious transgressions — assault, drug use, gold teeth. Clothes make the criminal, the logic goes, or at least the image of one.
Sounds simple, and it is — too simple. Dress less like a black man in the NBA, and you’ll act less black. What NBA commissioner David Stern is really doing is trying to make the league safer and more family-friendly by deracializing it, a time-honored strategy that’s worked in everything from real estate to electoral politics. I must say this up front: I have zero love of the so-called thug style, on ballplayers or anybody else — it’s just plain ugly to me. But I have to defend people’s right to wear it, and black people’s right especially. Over the last generation, African-Americans single-handedly — if inadvertently — have created something called the “urban market,” an umbrella term for modern-day black cultural appropriation that covers everything from clothes to music to hairstyles. Many people and companies have profited from this, relatively few of them black. Basketball is part of this urban market, as is fashion that takes its cues from hip-hop style, which in turn takes its cues from gang members, prison inmates and other unfortunates, who are a very real and very troubling part of black society. But it is, of course, that whole urban vĂ©ritĂ© that makes black fashion so thrilling, and basketball fans so willing to don the apparel and affects of Iverson and a cache of players who probably get their own thrills from being allowed to be niggas in public and getting paid handsomely for it, to boot — or at least not getting arrested for it.
It’s when they do get arrested for it, or called on it as Artest and others were, that the spell breaks and people go into their default positions on race and violence — talking about how things are getting out of hand and must be dealt with in no uncertain terms. Hence a dress code that’s meant to be punitive and order-restoring, but will probably be meaningless — what’s going to happen when black gang members and ex-cons start favoring pink polos, button-down argyle sweaters, blue suede shoes? Do you update the sartorial blacklist (so to speak) annually? Fashion’s mercurial nature does not bond well to rules. The hip-hop nouveau riche, and not so riche, have already claimed Chanel, Gucci, Cristalle and other traditional signifiers of haute couture as their own, thereby turning symbols of old white affluence and blue-bloodedness on their heads. The point is never the clothes or the label, of course, it’s who’s wearing them. And since black people are both admired as avatars of American fashion and shunned as objects of American fear, it’s difficult for them to know what to put on in the morning, or even feel that it matters. What good is even a suit if people still see a monkey in it?
Few phrases offer more mixed messages or feel more inherently contradictory than the term “ghetto fabulous.” Though meant to be more insouciant and somewhat distinct from the dreary thug/gang/prison wear the NBA is taking to task, the “ghetto fabulous” aesthetic is black cultural appropriation of the worst kind, primarily because it believes it is the best kind. It believes that flaunting riotous color, fake nails, weaves and bling jewelry, or flaunting some versions thereof, pays homage to black people rather than insulting them. It openly fetishizes the ghetto as a fashion trend, a boutique to be browsed through and picked over rather than a real place that nobody ever wants to visit, let alone live in.
Practitioners of G.F. actually think that the ghetto is fabulous, in an InStyle magazine kind of way — a glossy two-dimensional universe in which black people thrive on their own inventiveness and audacity and end up with big cars and big houses because they’re so . . . fabulous. Many sports fans regard the basketball court this way, a tightly circumscribed place where black people flourish on their terms and live out a success commensurate to their fabulous talents. Not an entirely wrong view, but a very limited one in its acceptance of black people as entertainers, gladiators and/or purveyors of style and attitude; for blacks to exhibit anything more human than that — uncertainty, character flaws, attitude that bleeds openly into pedestrian anger — is to risk losing fantasy status, and public favor.
Of course, ordinary black people who wear weaves and jewelry every day with no sense of irony (or fabulousness) have no favor or status to lose, which helps explain why many NBA players greeted the news of the dress code so tepidly. Sure, they’re superstars, not high schoolers, and, no, most of them don’t appreciate being told what to wear when they’re not playing. But as black citizens, they also understand that sporting gang/prison/urban looks is less an individual statement than giving the people what they want. They may be weary of playing that game, and realize that not dressing that way can be a new and more authentic form of black rebellion — actively taking the “ghetto” out of “fabulous” by switching to boardroom silks and ties. It’s the kind of self-empowerment that Charles Barkley, the basketball great and sometime social critic, who has more than a little bit of Cosby in him, has been advocating for years. Even Stephen Jackson, the Indiana Pacer guard involved in last year’s brawl, who favors gold chains and decried the dress code as racist, acknowledged on ESPN that “We do need to look more professional, because it is a business. A lot of guys have gotten sloppy with the way they dress.” Jackson added that, for his own part, he’ll wear a suit every day, probably with the chains in full view. Talk about mixed messages. It’ll be interesting to see whether the league cites him or not.
Leave it to Phil Jackson, former Lakers coach and the league’s most famous Buddhist, who favors clarity above all things, to be the most impolitic white guy on this issue. Jackson supports the dress code, and he says why. “The players have been dressing in prison garb the last five or six years,” Jackson told reporters. “All the stuff that goes on, it’s like gangster, thuggery stuff. It’s time. It’s been time to do that.
“But one must remember where one came from,” he continued. “I was wearing bib overalls when I was a player one time. I wasn’t going to the games or events in them.”
But if you had, Phil, it’s doubtful the NBA would have made a rule that you couldn’t. The inference that nobody wants to remember where the black players come from is true; we all want what black players wear to be a costume, the mark of some mythical tribe, and to some degree it is. But if it weren’t, we’d rather not consider that many black players are simply dressing as they did back home, representing in the most straightforward and least-titillating sense of the word. We want the looks, not locations — South-Central, Compton, Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans. Those are best left to hip-hop, another highly evolved aspect of the urban market that has become expert at invoking un-fabulous ghettos in music and videos. Three-dimensional black reality is another, well, reality. If and when that ever comes into fashion, it will be another moment entirely.