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Cloths Make the Man…Nicer?:

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Last week, the NBA appeared to concur with at least the first half of Mark Twain’s observation in imposing a dress code for professional basketball players when they are on league or team business and not in uniform. Mascots, be they dragons or leprechauns or Moondogs, will not have to wear neckties.

By demanding “business casual attire” whenever players are not in uniform, the NBA believes it can at least look like it is addressing the image problem that reached meltdown last year when players went into the stands during an Indiana/Detroit game and started pounding on some fans. The players leave the court to slug the paying customers, and the official response is “Iron your pants.”

Well, that’s not completely fair. The fans at that game were gooned on beer and had a reputation for being especially unpleasant. So there’s an entirely separate issue of whether the fans should also dress some other way, perhaps in clown costumes. Or they might at least take a closer look at the merits of public intoxication.

Immediately, there were responses and statements regarding the new dress code and they all seemed to come out of some soundbite division of Central Casting. There was indignation that the banning of t-shirts, chains and do-rags was culturally repressive. Then there was the observation that some of your biggest recent criminals always wore a suit and tie. At last, the lesson of Enron: Don’t let Kobe dress like Ken Lay.

Back around 1996, Bill Clinton started talking about the positive impacts that school uniforms would have on student performance. But students were also beginning to care more about designer labels and the status clothes inferred than they were about last night’s geography homework. I think the new NBA code could be helpful down that road.

Dress codes will do nothing to curb thug behavior in actual thugs. I’ve never seen Suge Knight in anything but “business casual,” although he often sports a more casual orange jumpsuit ensemble. But the NBA’s new dress code might communicate that the players work for their teams, not the other way around. There’s been extensive writing of late on the notion that professional basketball is withering because superstar players believe they are “all that and a bag of money” and won’t play “team.” Exerting even this little bit of restraint on showboating on the sidelines might help to reverse this destructive trend.

Does any one clothing look necessarily reinforce notions of thug life? I’m not sure I quite buy into that. Then you’d have to police the Disney Channel for kid rappers with their hats turned sideways. I do think that a school, a place of work, or (in the case of the NBA) an entertainment industry retains a right to dial it down.

Way before the player’s clothing says anything cultural, it often shouts a distorted view of what success means. If Kanye West wants to turn pop stars away from buying diamonds and thus supporting warfare and mutilation in areas where diamonds are produced, then the NBA can certainly get on board.

In exerting this kind of control over players, the NBA unfortunately reminds everyone of something many players are all too aware of: That professional athletes under contract are, to some extent, chattel. It’s logical that players would take every opportunity to assert their individuality. But the NBA is right to communicate that those expressions can have limitations. Nobody wants to see everyone in pro sports dressed like Vince Lombardi, although it’s interesting to ponder how that might focus some energy.

This Week’s “Know Your News” Quiz

1) Congress passed a bill shielding gun makers from

a) lawsuits arising from gun use.

b) having any moral fiber.

c) consciousness.

2) A Virginia oil company admits that

a) “Premium” and “Regular” are the same.

b) it paid kick backs under “oil for food”.

c) gas station hot dogs suck.

3) Critics say the White House is now

a) rudderless and adrift.

b) dazed and confused.

c) moist and chewy.

Answer Key

1) (a) “And now we return to ‘Gunsmoke’…”

2) (b) “Wait, the oil industry is corrupt?!?”

3) (a) “And now we return to ‘Hee Haw’…”

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