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Excerpt from After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness

By David J. Leonard |with thanks to NewBlackMan

Tuesday, April 24, 2012.

The murder of Trayvon Martin has prompted widespread discussions about race in America, persistent inequalities within the criminal justice system, differential values afforded to different bodies, and the real-life consequences of racial stereotypes.  Amid many of the discussions, media reports, and the protests have been questions about the racial signifier of the hoodie.  From the million hoodie march to the backlash directed at Geraldo Rivera, who named the hoodie as a co-conspirator along with George Zimmerman, the discourse has reflected on the racial signifiers embedded in the hoodie.  In other words, how is a black body, inherently criminal and suspect when read within a hoodie; what are the dialects between the hoodie and the black body within these processes of criminalization?  These types of questions have been asked and represented in a spectrum of spaces, highlighting the ways the black bodies are imagined as threatening within the dominant white imagination.  Pushing the conversation beyond individual prejudice and “what was in George’s heart,” such counter-narratives have reflected on how media narratives, popular culture, and a culture that criminalizes black bodies produces a Trayvon Martin, whose mere presence is seen as a threat, all while producing a George Zimmerman. 

As a scholar of race and sport, these questions have long guided my work: how do the representations of black athletes, particularly those in the NBA, buttress larger ideological, political, and criminalizing processes?  How does the ubiquitous references to NBA players as “thugs” and “gangstas” as “criminals” and “punks” normalize blackness as questionable, undesirable, and inherently suspect?   The murder of Trayvon, the prison industrial complex, the racial segregation in school discipline, and the levels of state violence are a product of these cultural projects.  According to a report from the Opportunity Agenda, “distorted media representations can be expected to create attitudinal effects ranging from general antagonism toward black men and boys, to higher tolerance for race-based socio-economic disparities, reduced attention to structural and other big-picture factors, and public support for punitive approaches to problems.”

In my recently release book – After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY 2012), I explore the broader criminalization of blackness inside and outside of the NBA’s arenas, that among things has focused on the attitudes, demeanor, and clothing of NBA ballers.  I, thus, present to you a short excerpt from the book, one that explores the racialization and criminalization that is evident in the NBA’s dress code as a way to expand our conversation about the murder of Trayvon Martin to reflect on how popular culture, media discourses, and the language of everyday racism both normalizes the criminalization of blackness and points to the importance of intervention in this regard.

After Artest

Not only unsuccessful on the court, the 2004 Olympic basketball team caused a significant amount of embarrassment for the NBA in the wake of its efforts to conceal blackness from the league.  Once a source of national pride, given the longstanding dominance of American basketball over the world, the 2004 installment was more of a nightmare than a dream team.  In anticipation of the Olympics, members of the basketball team attended a dinner in their honor at a fancy Belgrade restaurant.  While other guests, including members of the Serbian National Team, wore matching sport coats and dressed “appropriately,” Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and other members of the American team showed up in sweat suits, oversized jeans and shirts, large platinum chains, and, of course, diamond earrings.  Larry Brown, the team’s coach and the often celebrated benevolent white father figure of the NBA, was appalled, coming close to sending several players back to the hotel.  Mike Wise, in The Washington Post, described the incident as transformative for the NBA’s league officials. 

Word of the fashion faux pas eventually made its way to the office of NBA Commissioner David Stern in New York, where concern was already on the rise about how some players were dressing and, more broadly, how the game's appeal was slipping. The NBA had tried mightily to fuse its product with hip-hop culture, viewing its young players and their street fashion sense as a way to connect with a new generation of fans in the post-Michael Jordan era. But that wasn't happening. Indeed, Stern and some of his closest advisers concluded, they might be driving fans away from the sport (2005).

Shortly after the debacle in Athens, and less than two months after the Brawl at Auburn Hills, the NBA sent a clear message about the future of hip-hop and those bodies who embraced/reflected/ signified this “ghettocentric imagination” (Watkins 1998).  Shortly after he was traded to the Sacramento Kings, the NBA formally admonished Cutino Mobely for conducting interviews wearing a skullcap.  Despite the fact that he donned headgear baring the insignia of the NBA, and that he was considered “a good guy,” Mobely’s fashion choice impelled league officials to remind its players about professionalism and the league’s new unofficial policy concerning hip-hop. In this instance, with the NBA’s simultaneous commodification and demonization of hip-hop and its black male signifiers now visible, the efforts to police the league’s new black aesthetic illustrated the complex and contradictory roles played by aesthetics, cultural values, and bodies that are constructed as both fashionable (desirable and cool) and suspect (dangerous). 

In the aftermath of the Palace Brawl, the failures of the 2004 Olympic basketball squad, the sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant, the arrest of Allen Iverson, and the overall perception that the NBA was being overrun by “criminals,” gangstas, and those otherwise prone to “bad behavior” (Philips 2005), David Stern announced plans for a league-wide dress code in October 2005.  Concluding that ad hoc policies and team-directed rules2 were incompatible with their efforts to “rehabilitate the image of a sport beset with bad behavior,” the league instituted a dress code policy that governed players all while sending a message to fans and corporate partners. While denying that the dress code was part of the NBA’s master plan to appease white corporate interests and those of Red State, Middle America – or even that it was directed toward the NBA’s black, hip-hop baller – Stern repeatedly acknowledged the connection between the dress code and the Palace Brawl.  “It was a low point in the perception of our league . . . .  Our players are really good guys who deserve more respect than that” (“Code Makes Debut to Mixed Reactions Across League”).  In other words, the dress code represented an effort to counteract the negative publicity that had plagued the NBA during recent years by restricting assumed signifiers of blackness. 

The 2003-2005 seasons were a “low point” for the NBA in a number of ways. The NBA experienced a sharp decline in fan support.  Television ratings for the 2005 finals that pitted the Detroit Pistons against the San Antonio Spurs were down 30% from the previous year; its ratings for that year were last amongst the big three American sports (baseball and football).  During this time, the NBA office and its teams saw an increased number of complaints from corporate (Lorenz and Murray 2005).  Public opinion polls ranked basketball players as the least liked professional athletes among all the major Americans sports leagues. In response to falling ratings, dissipating corporate support, a deluge of publication relation’s nightmares, and unrelenting criticism from much of the media, the NBA hired Matthew Dowd, a Texas strategist who had previously worked with George W. Bush on his reelection campaign.  Having successfully helped Bush find immense support within Middle America, Dowd was brought in “to help” Stern “figure out how to bring the good ‘ol white folks back to the stands” (Abramson 2005).  As a result, the league office directed players to be more accessible to fans in terms of signing autographs, while also participating in “season-ticket holder events.”  It also initiated the NBA Cares project, a global public service outreach initiative, which was intended to facilitate the donation of $100 million dollars to charity, provide one million hours of community service donated by the players themselves, and build 100 youth centers by 2010.  Both these initiatives represented the NBA’s effort “to look a little less gangsta and more genteel” (Eligon 2005). It was part of a public relations strategy that emphasized the quality and good nature of NBA players.  

Yet, the dress code would come to embody the NBA’s most systematic effort to alter its image in order to bring back its red state fans and corporate sponsors. According to an NBA official, the dress code was designed to appease corporate anxieties about the league’s hip-hop image and protect the NBA’s economic (television contracts) future.  “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” (Quoted in Wise 2005).  Notwithstanding these anonymous explanations, or the media’s praise for the proposed dress code as a necessary challenge to the hip-hop/gangsta invasion of the NBA, David Stern and others consistently downplayed these motivations, instead focusing on the dress code as a means for combating the unfair demonization of its players.  It was the NBA’s attempt to help its (black) players be seen in a proper light.  In a letter outlining the dress code, which was sent to players, coaches, and owners,3 the NBA provided the following rationale for the policy:

We know that you share our desire that NBA players be appreciated not only for their extraordinary talent and hard work, but also for their accessibility to fans, their community service, and their professionalism – both on and off the court. To that end, we will be instituting, effective with the start of the regular season, a league-wide “minimum” dress code. Many teams have previously issued their own dress codes, designed to demonstrate the seriousness with which their players take the representation of their teams, their cities, and our league; our new dress code is not intended to affect any of those that are more formal than what is set forth below in the new NBA dress code (“NBA Dress Code: Dress Code Policy” 2005).

The policy required that players “wear business casual attire” whenever participating in league events or team functions, or when conducting “team or league business,” defined as any “activity conducted on behalf of the team or the league during which the player is seen by or interacts with fans, business partners, members of the public, the media, or other third parties.”  The policy restricted the clothing choices of players engaged in a number of tasks: participating in league events, promotional appearances, or media interviews; sitting on the bench when not in uniform; leaving or arriving at the stadium, and, potentially, riding on team buses or planes.  In addition to regulating dress in particular (public and private) spaces, the policy also stipulated what constituted “business attire,” noting that to be in compliance players must wear dress-shirts and/or sweaters, dress slacks, dress jeans or khakis, socks, and either dress shoes “or presentable shoes.” Beyond the above description of business attire, it required that those players sitting on the bench out of uniform wear jackets along with the other mandated clothing options.4  It additionally offered a series of prohibitions, thereby clarifying its intent, against the following: sleeveless shirts, shorts, jerseys, t-shirts, sports apparel (unless event appropriate), chains, pendants, medallions, sunglasses (indoors), and headphones (unless on team plane, bus or in the locker room).  The breadth and specificity of the regulation is clear: “Headgear of any kind while sitting on the bench or in the stands at a game, during media interviews, or during a team or league event or appearance (unless appropriate for the event or appearance, team-identified, and approved by the team) is to be excluded” (“NBA Dress Code: Dress Code Policy” 2005).   

Although Stern and others inside the NBA spoke of the policy in universal terms, as an effort to highlight the professionalism and “goodness” of all its players, numerous players saw the policy as something else: a racist assault on hip-hop and yet another instance of the NBA attacking its young black male stars.  Blackness exists as “a problematic sign and ontological position” (Williams 1998, p. 140).  Given that the NBA does not want to rid itself of its black players, the dress code seeks to lighten, if not whiten, these players in the national (white) imagination. It sought to recreate the illusion of racial transcendence amongst its African Americans players. It works to sever the ties between LeBron, Dwyane, and Kobe and hip-hop, blackness and the criminalized black body, at least within the white imagination.  Jason Richardson again makes this clear:  “They want to sway away from the hip-hop generation. You think of hip-hop right now and think of things that happen like gangs having shootouts in front of radio stations” (“Pacers' Jackson: dress code is ‘racist’”).


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.



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