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The Hypocritical NBA Dress Code

New rules are aimed at making the African American-dominated sport more palatable to the corporate crowd.
 
 
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The NBA used to be the acronym for the National Basketball Association. Last week, NBA came to stand for ''No Bling Allowed,'' as one national news anchor reported.

The league's new dress code is aimed at making the African American-dominated professional basketball industry more palpable to the button-up corporate crowd.

To put that in language the NBA's elite players and their hip-hop fans would easily understand: This ain't Rucker Park. It's all about the money that team owners bring in from mostly white rich folks sitting courtside or in the skyboxes, paying top dollar to see formerly poor black athletes turn the mechanical style of play lauded by purists into an individual form of art and cultural expression.

Supporters of the new dress code rely on the old saw used in the recurring uniforms-in-public-schools debate. The nugget-of-truth appeal of the argument is the idea that the more elegantly one is dressed, the more civil one's behavior tends to be.

One of my favorite sportswriters, the politically-conscious David Zirin, shines a broader light on the topic in his recently published book ''What's My Name, Fool?''

Zirin says we live in the sports age of the anti-hero. ''Young people are increasingly identifying with athletes who seem to want to tell everybody to go to hell,'' he writes.

The ultimate anti-hero, Zirin rightly points out, is Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson -- ''the poster child for everything that flies in the face of corporate America's frantic quest to rectify 'values' and retain wealth.''

Why does ''the Answer'' have such street credibility? Again, Zirin is all-net on this one. ''When A.I. was a rookie, he schooled Jordan on a crossover dribble and said afterward (Jordan) is not my hero. None of my heroes wear suits.''

''They market (Iverson) as being 'real' and 'from the streets' but hate (his) childhood friends -- referred to by 50-year-old sports columnists as 'his posse' who watch his back. Funny how it wasn't a 'posse' when Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and the crew went drinking and carousing at Toots Shor's.''

And, I would add, funny how there was no outcry to rein in ''out of control'' athletes after one of my childhood baseball heroes, George Brett, ran from the Kansas City Royals dugout looking like a crazed murderer in the infamous pine tar incident.

And it's a real hoot how sports fans, team owners and Congress aren't demanding that ''we do something'' about the white boxing matches on ice skates -- better known as professional hockey.

Yes, I agree. It's not a bad thing that NBA stars won't be shamelessly flaunting outrageously expensive jewelry in the eyes of the poor kids who buy their ridiculously costly sneakers. However, the idea that pro sports is an example of a ''true meritocracy,'' as many pundits have suggested (usually when trying to dis affirmative action policies), has been shown to be a myth.

Merit? ''Iverson has been voted, year in and year out, one of the toughest guys in the league by his peers. He weighs 160 pounds soaking wet, and wouldn't top six feet in a pair of pumps ... He is the only player under six feet tall in the NBA history to be named the game's MVP and, along with Jordan, is the only player to lead the league in scoring and steals in the same season.''

In the movie White Men Can't Jump Woody Harrelson's character gave voice to the unspoken thought of many player haters. The truth is, he said, black players would rather look pretty than win, while white players would rather win than look pretty.

Maybe life does imitate art. The new NBA dress code will make the league look more ''professional'' but it also validates the fictional black thug caricature so frighteningly real in the popular imagination.

So, whether white men can or can't jump doesn't matter. As long as they own the teams, they don't have to jump. In fact, when they say jump, they expect their money-makers to ask, how high?

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.