NBA players cry foul over new dress code

LOS ANGELES - Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson says it's "not good for the league, because it makes it fake."

Orlando Magic's Grant Hill says, "Personally, I like it. I like to dress up."

Indiana Pacer Stephen Jackson calls it "racist."

What the three high-profile players from the National Basketball Association (NBA) are up in arms about is the league's new dress code banning "bling," which goes into effect Nov. 1.

That means chains, medallions, do-rags, sleeveless shirts, and indoor sunglasses are out.

In is business casual attire - wearing dress slacks, dress shoes, and sports coats - when on NBA time.

Violators will be fined. Repeat offenders risk being kicked out of the league.

But what the NBA thought would be a simple strategy to bolster its business has become a cultural flash point with outcries for and against the new dress code.

The league has had dwindling attendance in recent years and a bad PR rap with memories of a fan/player brawl last season. With the professional basketball season set to open, NBA Commissioner David Stern's announcement is widely seen as an attempt to clean up the league's image with fans, players, sponsors, and owners. The new dress code is part of a larger initiative called "NBA Cares" in which owners and players will raise and donate $100 million to charities over five years and volunteer in soup kitchens and food giveaways.

It is the dress code that has sparked a heated debate about image, race, individuality and diversity. Many parents and fans welcome the change to as a way to help make athletes better role models for the many children that emulate their sports heroes. Others think dress is individual expression, not to be shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all corporate mold.

Still others worry that changing apparel rules glosses over cultural identity and class differences between a disproportionately black athlete pool and a largely white fan base.

"The NBA is trying to make a constructive step by dressing up its athletes," says William Stierle, an L.A.-based conflict specialist. "But unless they also deal with the sources of criticism, and judgment underneath, the problems are likely to surface in other ways."

Some players and coaches, however, welcome the new regulations, believing players have gone too far in recent years in adopting America's hip-hop culture. Many have abandoned the executive looks of previous NBA stars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. "The players have been dressing in prison garb the last five or six years ... all the stuff that goes on, it's like gangster, thuggery stuff," L.A. Laker coach Phil Jackson wrote on an ESPN website. "It's time."

But singling out neck chains is "definitely a racial statement," says Indiana Pacer Stephen Jackson.

The racist argument is not substantiated in this instance says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of "The Assassination of the Black Male Image." He says, "These guys are role models whether they want to be or not so that if [they] dress a certain way [they] are telling a constituency that almost worships the ground [they] walk on that it's OK to rebel against society."

At a recent Los Angeles Lakers pre-season game in the Staples Arena, the debate galvanized some fans.

Ryan Hopkins and Sir John Thomas, two 16-year-old basketball players who attend the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies have a different take on the athlete-as-role-model rationale.

"I think the dress code is kind of harmful because as an adolescent, my instincts are to look up to the NBA for examples, and the way they dress is a sign of individuality to me and other young adults," says Ryan. "To deprive them of wearing some of these things is racially insensitive."

Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which aims to improve player-fan relations says he "doesn't necessarily agree with installing a dress code."

"There are so many ways we identify people ... differences in dress, education, money, where they live, religious or sexual orientation, skin color, learning styles - but the bottom line is we don't want to shape our opinions on what they look like but getting to know who they really are."

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