RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
NBA Commissioner David Stern last week announced a new dress code for players on league business. Sleeveless shirts, shorts and clunky jewelry are out; sports coats, shoes and socks are in. The commissioner's orders set off an uproar among some of pro basketball's biggest stars and brought these thoughts from commentator Frank Deford.
Oh, heavens to Betsy, what a furor, what a to-do, what a downright brouhaha. My, there doesn't seem to have been a controversy so passionate in sports since Gene Tunney benefited from the long count against Jack Dempsey in 1927. Why, if Harriet Miers would only explain her opinion on the matter straightforwardly to the Senate Judiciary Committee, it would not only reveal her attitude about privacy as a constitutional right, it would surely propel her into the Supreme Court on a voice vote. I can hear Senator Specter now, `Ms. Miers, do you believe Commissioner David Stern had the right to force NBA players to obey a new travel dress code?' A breathless nation awaits her answer.
Since Commissioner Stern came out with his edict last week, the responses have been more numerous than hurricanes. The real firebrands have tagged Stern as racist. Something like 80 percent of NBA players are African-American and since Stern is ordering them to wear sports jackets with collared shirts and dress pants and shoes with toes, no less than bankers or the New York Yankees, he is Simon Legree.
For the record, the put-upon NBA players average about $5 million a year, and the league office's minority employment is by far the highest than any professional sport. Never mind. Other critics call the NBA hypocritical for playing up the hip-hop gangsta image when it helps bring in a young audience, but now selling out to older, richer conservative sponsors as television ratings keep going south.
Others argue that the young black players are being cruelly stripped of their individuality, and some have even advanced an economic argument. Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets, who is making do on a new $50 million contract, argues that to alleviate the indignity and sacrifice of this unjust stricture, players should receive a new clothing allowance.
Actually, travel codes are hardly that uncommon in professional sport. For example, in the NBA the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, both incidentally run by former black players Billy Knight and Isiah Thomas, have more demanding dress standards than the new league mandate. Of course, clothes don't necessarily make the player. Both the Hawks and Knicks are losers. So, too, did the Minnesota Vikings institute a dress code not long ago, and yet the Vikes remain as behaviorally incorrect as they may be sartorially correct.
But surely leagues have the right to demand a level of presentable appearance from the young personages who represent them, and let's be honest, in a very short period of time the snapshot of an NBA player off the court has gone from the impeccable and classy Michael Jordan to what Phil Mushnick of the New York Post calls `players looking like recruitment officers for the Bloods and Crips.'
Even Charles Barkley, famously on record for telling children not to look up to NBA players as role models, says the new code is fantastic, for it shows young African-American males how best to dress in the wider world. And now the ranking Judiciary member, Senator Leahy, has a question: `Ms. Miers, next on the subject of ostentatious jewelry, do you believe the NBA commissioner has a constitutional right to tell players to hide their bling when in public?'
MONTAGNE: Commentary from our always sartorially correct Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
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