The changing standards in dress for NBA players and its impact on social norms

One writer suggests that the current clothing styles of NBA stars is related to social norms for black men:

When David Stern imposed the league’s reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn’t seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today’s Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern’s black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

It’s not a complete transformation. Being Carlton wasn’t just code for nerd, it was code for gay, and the homophobia these clothes provoked still persists, even from their wearers. Once last year, Dwight Howard, of the Orlando Magic, wore a blue-and-black cardigan over a whitish tie and pink shirt to a press conference. When a male reporter told him it was a good color on him, instead of asking the reporter “Which color?,” Howard spent many seconds performing disgusted disbelief: Whoa, whoa. A moment like that demonstrated how hopelessly superficial all this style can be. The sport can change its clothes, but, even with Dan Savage looking over its shoulder, will it ever change its attitude? If Howard thinks compliments about his cardigan are gay, he probably shouldn’t wear one.

Still, something’s changed in a sport that used to be afraid of any deviations from normal. That fear allowed Dennis Rodman to thrive. Now Rodman just seems like a severe side effect of the league’s black-male monoculture. The Los Angeles Lakers officially recognize the man who was involved in one of the most notorious fights in sports history as “Metta World Peace.” Baron Davis, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, spent the summer in a lockout beard that made him look like a Fort Greene lumberjack. And Kevin Durant wears a safety-strapped backpack. If Stern was hoping to restore a sense of normalcy to the NBA, he only exploded it. There no longer is a normal.

Summary of the argument: in a big shift, it is now acceptable, and perhaps even cool, to be a wealthy black athlete who dresses like a nerd.

I could imagine several interpretations of this trend (and these would likely come from different groups of people):

1. A Marxist approach. David Stern has succeeded in pushing black stars to dress like preppy whites in order to further the economic interests of the NBA. This isn’t about allowing these stars to express themselves; it is about making them palatable to a white audience that buys tickets, corporate sponsorships, and drives TV ratings.

2. The clothes may have changed but there is not exactly overwhelming support for gay athletes or perhaps even for having more “feminine” traits.

3. There is a broader “star culture” or “celebrity culture” that transcends basketball and unites the broader entertainment industry. Star athletes today are not just physically unique; they are cultural celebrities and need to dress the part to fit in with their reference group.

4. Athletes today care too much about things like clothes and not enough about winning.

5. Black male culture was never that homogeneous. Using “The Fresh Prince” as the primary cultural example in this article is a limited perspective. The media and society might have one image but it is not necessarily accurate.

6. Is examining how stars dress like nerds continuing a negative stereotype about nerds and the importance of education? Does the way LeBron James dresses change the culture’s views of nerds or does his celebrity still push a macho image tied to basketball competition and physical prowess or perhaps a stylish, sophisticated, and wealthy image?

In the end, the intersections here between athletes, race, gender, and fashion are fascinating to consider.

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