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Opinions on the NBA's Dress Code Are Far From Uniform

Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan
Allen Iverson, left, is emblematic of hip-hop culture's influence on NBA players in the post-Michael Jordan, right, era. (AP, Reuters)

"The style of the players, whether on the court or off, is so intertwined with the style of the streets," said Joseph Anthony, the chief executive of Vital Marketing, an urban youth marketing company. "It's an odd decision for a league that's main draw is the individuality of its players to attempt to create anonymity among its ranks."

Spike Lee, the filmmaker and lifelong fan of the New York Knicks, sees how some could cry hypocrisy -- especially the way the league in recent years marketed players such as Iverson as the next big thing and co-opted hip-hop music in many of its arenas. Moreover, hip-hop stars Jay-Z, Usher and Nelly and are part-owners of NBA franchises.

But "I think David Stern was right on this issue," Lee said in a telephone interview. "What are all those kids wearing the night they're drafted and they shake David Stern's hand? Suits. In corporate America, you have dress codes. Let's be honest: Image is everything. And they're trying to change the image of the league. Between the fight in Detroit last year and other perceptions, they've realized they have a public relations issue. They've set out to change it."

Charles Barkley, the former all-star player and now an analyst for Turner Sports Television, acknowledged there are racial subtexts connected to the new dress code. He also said that's why he's in favor of it.

"Young black kids dress like NBA players," Barkley told the Los Angeles Times. "Unfortunately, they don't get paid like NBA players. So when they go out in the real world, what they wear is held against them. . . .

"If a well-dressed white kid and a black kid wearing a 'do-rag and throwback jersey came to me in a job interview, I'd hire the white kid. That's reality."

The dress code is the most visible component of a broader effort by the league and the National Basketball Players Association to improve the relationship between players and fans. The matter was discussed during collective bargaining this summer, and the players agreed to two more mandated community appearances per season and a directive to sign autographs for fans after leaving the court during warmups.

Stern also announced a new NBA Cares initiative under which the league, its owners and its players would raise and donate $100 million to charities over the next five years. The plan envisions players taking part in coat drives, turkey giveaways and serving food at soup kitchens in November and December.

Stern is viewed as the most proactive and punitive commissioner in U.S. professional sports. His decisions to suspend Latrell Sprewell for an entire season for choking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, in December 1997, and to suspend Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers for the rest of the season last year for inciting November's melee between fans and players at the Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit, were lauded by peers and fans.

But his support of his players also is well documented. Five years ago, Stern publicly admonished an editor of the NBA-sponsored Hoop magazine for airbrushing several of Iverson's tattoos for a cover shoot. The commissioner is fond of criticizing what he says is the media's obsession with covering the negative aspects of the NBA.

The NBA is not unique among professional sports in its concern with its image, though each sport manages the issue in a different way. The National Football League stresses conformity; players can be penalized for removing their helmets on the field and fined for wearing the wrong shade of socks on game day. Some say Major League Baseball's more decentralized structure was partly responsible for allowing the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by players to spread, but the league has been tackling the problem more aggressively under the threat of congressional sanctions.

NASCAR has moved from a niche, Southern-based sport into the cultural mainstream with a carefully crafted public relations strategy in which it wrapped itself -- and its cars and drivers -- in corporate endorsements.

Stern's possible concern that the NBA's image problems could alienate corporate sponsors and affect future network television contracts may have outweighed his desire for his players to be respected as individuals and accepted by mainstream culture, league officials said. "If you speak to 100 people on the street and most of them think our players are the worst of the lot in pro sports, there's a problem," one official said. "We know the vast majority of our players are good guys."

Mark Cuban, the loquacious owner of the Dallas Mavericks who is fond of wearing Mavericks T-shirts at his team's games, does not understand the fuss over players' appearance. "Some in the NBA want things to work purely in a way they are comfortable with rather than understanding players, communicating with them and understanding how the players can bring added value by dressing to fit the customer, rather than dressing to fit senior management," Cuban said in an e-mail.

"If NBA TV ratings were higher, this never would have come up."

Staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.

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