A gender divide over NBA dress code

If women had their way, professional athletes would lose the "bling" and sport the suit-and-tie thing.

That's the overwhelming response from the opinion poll and essay assignment I administered recently in Developmental English classes at a community college. My sample of nearly 40 women and men mostly from New Haven, Conn., was limited, to be sure. Still, the responses may say a lot about male-female dynamics, image, and economics - and a kind of schoolyard "terrorism" and homeroom insecurity, where fashion can be a weapon of mass disruption.

The assignment was prompted by an announcement from the commissioner of the National Basketball Association this fall requiring players to wear business-casual attire, dress pants and collared shirts, when participating in off-court NBA events. In other words, no more tank tops and large jewelry.

Overwhelmingly, the women (many of whom are single parents) favored dress codes. They thought it was important for men who had "made it" to dress in a way that set them apart from those who haven't landed well-paying jobs and had no business prospects apart from street commerce.

"Anybody can hang big chains around their neck. The man I want my son to look up to has to do more than dunk a basketball. He has to have gotten beyond shiny jumpsuits," wrote an eldercare worker and single mother of a 9-year-old boy.

"My daughter sees plenty of guys dressed in hip-hop style," wrote the single mom of a 7-year-old girl. "A suit and tie says you're from another walk of life. She needs to know that men of color belong in that life, too."

Some players, player reps, and civil rights advocates have charged that the commissioner's dress code is really a code for racism. For the most part, the women in my classes didn't feel they knew enough to comment on the NBA tiff, but they were clear about where they stood as to dress codes.

Many favored uniforms for grade-school youngsters to relieve their families of the financial pressures brought on by each new star-endorsed athletic shoe or rapper-designer clothing line. These fads (and their ads) ratchet up the status calculus and peer pressure that invade so many schools.

"We hand down gym shoes. They can get pretty raggedy. Torn laces get knotted and reknotted ... and tell the world we don't have money for laces, let alone new shoes," wrote an accounting student who has received hand-me-downs from her older siblings for years. "We buy several sizes too big because pants and jackets have to last as long as the threads hold. Gangster get-ups don't mean solidarity with me and mine. It's phony."

But what about denying brilliant athletes the freedom to express themselves off the court as flamboyantly or outrageously as they express themselves on the court? Some of the guys in my classes liked the idea that they could look like players - and that the pros could look like them. To these young men, the NBA dress code was, in essence, a form of identity theft.

One of my students gets teased a lot because he sports the ghetto uniform: baggy multipocket jeans and an oversized coat covering an oversized hooded sweatshirt. He likes NBA stars to dress like him. "They know where they're from," he wrote. "They're not trying to be somebody else."

But several of the women disagreed in their essays. They felt the NBA stars sent the wrong message to their communities - already struggling with real gang behavior - by glamorizing the "thugged out" look.

Disdain for "looking like a thug" didn't fall neatly along gender lines, however. And not all the young men acknowledged that an imposed dress code was a form of suppression. One opined that a dress code had nothing to do with racism - racism would mean that modestly talented white players would play as starters with mega-salaries while much more talented black players would be relegated to the bench with modest salaries.

He also wrote about the large life he'd live if he could drive and dunk like the NBA stars. For several million dollars a year and adulation, he'd gladly wear a custom-tailored suit and the silkiest of ties.

"I need a good job. How many people are going to read my application if I [look like] a threat? I got to look like the words I'm learning to write."

But what all these students have in common - whether they work in childcare or at a megastore loading dock - is the Christmas pinch. Deep down, they know the dilemma of an imposed dress code is a luxury. Their disposable incomes don't allow for all the "bling," or business casual, they might like to put under the tree.

Joseph H. Cooper teaches English at several community colleges in Connecticut.

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