Dress code no hardship for NBA players

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

I am trying to feel Marcus Camby’s pain. I am also trying to keep a straight face. I cannot do both.

Camby, for those who never read the sports page, is a very tall man who is paid $8 million per annum to play basketball for the Denver Nuggets. You’d think life would be good, but Camby is feeling put upon.

This is because last week the National Basketball Association instituted a dress code for its players. No more sunglasses worn indoors, no more sleeveless shirts, no more headphones during news conferences, no more caps cocked to the side, no more do-rags, no more rumpled sweats, no more chains bearing gaudy pendants the approximate size and weight of a small child.

Business casual dress is now required of every player while on team business.

Camby feels this is an unfair burden. He told a reporter that if the NBA wants to impose a dress code, it should give each player a clothing allowance.

Did I mention that Camby is paid $8 million a year?

Of course, not every NBA player who opposes the dress code has cited financial hardship as his reason. At least two — Stephen Jackson of the Indiana Pacers, Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics — have cited race. They think the code is aimed at ridding the league of the hip-hop “gangsta” look that is so popular among young black men.

“…I think that’s part of our culture,” said Pierce. “The NBA is young black males.”

Does he have a point? Is race a factor here? Having given the matter considerable consideration, I have an answer. In fact, I have three:

1) No. The new dress code will also require a wardrobe upgrade for such noteworthy white slobs as Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.

2) Maybe. Given that more than 75 percent of its players are black, the NBA can hardly avoid being a microcosm of racial issues.

3) Who cares?

Actually, No. 3 is my favorite. Let us assume that NBA Commissioner David Stern is indeed motivated by a perception that basketball fans find it increasingly difficult to relate to a league of Scary-Looking Young Black Men — especially after last year’s brawl between players and fans.

So what? This is business. Stern is entitled — obligated — to use any moral means to protect his multi-billion-dollar corporation. If you earn a lavish living from that corporation, you should also be concerned about its well-being.

As for race: Let’s grant that for some individuals, all young black men, indeed, all black men, period, are scary looking, regardless of dress. Still, to believe the dress code is racist, you must ignore the fact that the gangsta look is not particularly popular among middle-aged black folk, but is often embraced by young white ones. Point being, this is less racial than generational.

Meaning a generation of young black people choosing a style of dress that connotes criminality and street corner values. And it’s childish to say, as Camby did, that, “You shouldn’t judge a person from what they wear.” Unlike skin tone, unlike nationality, unlike sexual orientation, clothing reflects a conscious choice.

So judging people by what they wear is fair. One has an absolute right to dress in a lime green suit with red shoes and an orange tie. But one has no reasonable expectation of being treated seriously as a candidate for the executive position while so attired. Because the company also has rights, including the right to ensure you represent it well.

Clothes, we used to say, make the man. The man, if he has a lick of sense, realizes this and conducts himself accordingly. The African-American man — so often scorned simply for being — should understand that better than any, particularly if he is fortunate enough to be lavishly compensated for playing a game.

So it’s hard to muster sympathy for Marcus Camby. Poor baby thinks he’s being mistreated? I can think of 8 million reasons he’s wrong.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com