Column Feature

NBA Dress Codes: Ten Years After A.I.

A friend joked recently that the Clippers lost Game 6 against the Rockets because Doc Rivers put in Cliff Paul in the 4th quarter. With the Clippers now eliminated and Chris Paul still chasing that elusive championship ring, some may wonder if Cliff the State Farm agent didn’t make the better career choice. Cliff has the exact same dreamy brown eyes as his twin, but with a more stable job and less public scrutiny.

Dreamy brown eyes?

The same goes for Kevin Durant, who has been appearing more frequently in Sprint commercials as a personal injury lawyer after missing the playoffs. Both Durant the lawyer and Cliff Paul the insurance agent (and now Sebastian Curry the professor) embody the antithesis of perceived NBA superstardom: they represent pencil-pushing stability and middle-class respectability.

This about sums it up.
This about sums it up.

This trend now of promoting the boring alter-egos of NBA players might be traced back to David Stern’s dress code policy of 2005. The NBA dress code, so Stern claimed, was a means of “cleaning up the image” of the NBA by requiring players to wear suits or other business attire when entering and leaving stadiums, sitting on the sidelines, and doing promotions for the NBA. It banned “casual wear,” specifically anything associated with African American and hip-hop fashion—chains, do rags, jeans, anything baggy, etc. It’s worth mentioning that headphones were on the original banned list. But not anymore, certainly not after the NBA’s latest partnership with HARMAN.

Stern’s dress code was in many ways a means of ripping the spotlight away from Allen Iverson, cornrows and medallions included. Iverson, after all, defined the culture and style of the NBA in the early 2000s. He was tough, tattooed, and brought his bling to the game both on and off the court. Unapologetic and uncompromising, Iverson was one of the most vocal opponents of the dress code, with a host of other players supporting him that it was a racist policy meant to target and tame specifically African American players’ fashion.

It’s no coincidence to me that Iverson’s decline as an NBA superstar intersects with the rise of the NBA insurance agent. Stern’s dress code was the pivot that stylistically swung the NBA from an urban street sport into a business casual affair.

Can you can of think of any other professional sport that would or could weave a fashion show into its All-Star Game?

Ten years later, Stern’s dress code has been touted as a success, with many athletes embracing the opportunity to “dress up.” Think of Lebron James and his custom-tailored suits, or Russell Westbrook’s fabulous ensembles. This year’s All-Star Weekend included a fashion show (“NBA All-Star All-Style”), produced by James himself. Can you can of think of any other professional sport that would or could weave a fashion show into its All-Star Game? Westbrook is creative director of True Religion, and curates his own clothing line at Barney’s.

Lata Pandya and Maggie Thatch posted recently on the “clowning” of sports stars in the entertainment industry. This trend may be disturbing in its assumptions of African American athletes and other athletes of color as inherently embodying comedy. Though both the State Farm and Sprint commercials are comedic, I am even more struck by how much emphasis they’ve put on the image of the “respectable” and “clean cut” middle-class African American professional.

“Respectability politics” has long been a controversial idea within African American political history. It describes the mindset, within the African American community, of those with power and privilege who think that those in a lower social position need to “fit in” with and “earn” the respect of mainstream white society as a means of achieving social equality and upward mobility. It emphasizes individualism and self-determination only, ignoring the historical legacies and social structures responsible for the solidification of racial oppression in the US. Bill Cosby was once the celebrity voice of respectability politics (post-rape charges have kind of thrust his definition of “respectability” in crisis, kind of), calling out African Americans to speak “proper” English and black men to pull their pants up. Always, the saggy pants.

The NBA’s turn to business wear is consistent with this conservative thinking. Though, I do give props to how certain players have creatively risen to the challenge, ironically and stylishly donning Argyle sweater vests and Coke-bottle glasses in an exaggeration of the “respectable” look. Yet, I kind of miss the days when AI held press conferences dripping in chinchilla and ice. For all his flaws, Iverson embodied the idea that landing a mega-million NBA contract didn’t mean you had to appease, or impress, a (white) middle-class audience. It meant, finally, you could be who you really, really wanted to be.

Finally, consider the fact that we live in the era of the millionaire-casual. Think of Mark Zukerberg doing business in a hoodie–of all things. But on a black body, the hoodie signifies potential violence and “thuggery.” The legacy of the “ban on bling” of 2005, as I like to call it, reminds us of the racial politics of celebrity and fame, and who can get away with wearing what in the spotlight.

Shout out to Suzanne Schmidt for the Cliff Paul joke!


Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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