NBA Dress Code Exposes Prejudices

Last week's column about the new NBA dress code touched a nerve. A number of white readers wrote to chastise me for ''holding up guys like Allen Iverson'' as heroes.

Actually, I agreed with sportswriter David Zirin, who said Iverson is an ''anti-hero.'' And, I wasn't trying to make the case that casual wear is better than suits and ties.

''You decided to make it into a black/white thing or thang,'' one reader wrote.

Air ball. As is often the case with public race talk, some folks think it's ''playing the race card'' to even acknowledge the elephant in the room without evidence of KKK-involvement or a lynching, as if the legacy of white privilege and racial nepotism ended the day after Martin Luther King was murdered.

The main point I was trying to make wasn't about ''keeping the black man down'' but white America's tendency to publicly discipline blacks for the behavior of a few while seeing the uncivil or unlawful activity of whites in individual terms.

Is there an inherent link between dress and success? Of course not, as any one of those casually-attired Microsoft millionaires can tell you. It's a matter of subjective perception.

Another point conveniently ignored by my ''color-blind'' correspondents is that this dress code exposes the lie that we live in a meritocracy, and is one reason why I am suspicious of affirmative action opponents who constantly harp on ''merit'' and ''the most qualified,'' as if they're talking about objective evaluations.

Even in a sport where blacks are utterly dominant, it's still not good enough. And I'm expected to believe that in the less visible private sector, employers don't rely on their subjective perceptions to determine which qualified candidate is actually hired?

If a concern for ''standards,'' and not race, is what primarily fuels the passion of non-sports-playing dress code cheerleaders, then why don't we hear moral harangues about the violence in the NHL, which makes the NBA look like a love-fest?

Maybe William James was right when he noted that some people think they are thinking when they're really only re-arranging their prejudices.

Instead of tongue-in-cheek, one reader put foot-in-mouth with this: ''I don't understand your comparison of hockey to basketball. I think there are more fights these days in basketball.'' Apparently, he doesn't watch sports or ESPN. I can't tell you how many times I've heard hockey fans say they'd be less interested if there were no fights. Check out, which archives the ''best'' and most popular fights and fighters in pro hockey.

But let a black basketball player wear basketball gear off court or a Joe Nathan throwback fur coat, God forbid, and I'm getting e-mails saying: ''I don't think (a dress code) is asking too much of these overpaid spoiled brats, who whine when someone gives them some basic rules.''

Unsolicited, unwarranted and insulting paternalism aside, I guess the overpaid whiners in corporate America who chafe at ''free-market'' regulations in light of, say, investment fraud or the raiding of a pension fund get a pass on ''the basic rules.'' But, hey, at least the Ken Lays of the business world wear suits.

If I suggest Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey has too much money, I'm a Marxist. But if some bar-stool philosopher gets on the sports salary-cap soapbox, it's considered speaking up for the common man. And, the silence from laissez-faire, free-marketeers lamenting ''class envy'' in those instances speaks volumes.

Why do athletes get paid so much? Because they can do things that 99.9 percent of us can't, however morally unjustifiable the salaries may be. It's called capitalism.

As my grandmother used to say: you can spit in my face, but don't tell me it's raining.

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