Stern: Dress code debate is 'live, unscripted drama'

David Stern talks to ESPN Insider Chris Sheridan about the cultural and racial implications of the league's new dress code.

Updated: October 26, 2005, 3:51 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN Insider

Racial resentment comes with the territory for the old white man who took quite a bit of flak last week for telling young black men how to dress.

David Knows Best was overstepping his bounds, some argued. Dictator David was showing how out of touch he was with hip-hop culture and the youthful fashion sense.

Allen Iverson called the NBA's new dress code "fake." Jason Richardson and Stephen Jackson thought it was racist. Paul Pierce argued that NBA players are not businessmen, but entertainers, while Tim Duncan opined it was "a load of crap" and "basically retarded."

With the regular season still two weeks from starting, NBA commissioner David Stern's edict managed to transcend the barrier separating from much deeper racial and cultural issues.

This is not the first time that phenomenon has occurred, nor will it be the last. But if you think it bothers Stern, you're wrong.

"We've gotten more ink on the dress policy than the preseason," Stern told ESPN.com. "But that shouldn't surprise us. Magic Johnson, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Latrell Sprewell, Allen [Iverson's] rap record. It's the NBA, we're an accelerator, and actually, that's OK. We're live, unscripted drama. We're a soap opera, on the court and off the court."

In our world, there are still considerable numbers of people who tend to see too many things in black and white, borderline extremists with no mental capacity to shade things a little gray. Folks from every corner of the spectrum found something to say about Dave's dictum on what can and can't be worn, and when, by the athletes employed by The House That Stern Built.

The rule covers all players -- black, white, mixed-race, Asian, European, South American, Caribbean, Canadian and Cuban (but not Mark) -- but a few players and commentators took it as a swipe at the younger black Americans who dominate the NBA's player population of about 450.

Stern, the overseer of a $3 billion-a-year business, said the rule was based on something simple, not sinister.

"We pressed the buttons as soft as we possibly could," Stern said, explaining he felt that with his league getting increasingly younger and the money getting increasingly better, a generation of NBA players had somehow become less aware than their predecessors as to how they were expected to conduct themselves and present themselves to the public.

Coming off a year in which the Pacers-Pistons brawl at The Palace was the defining moment of the regular season, Stern has made the dress code one of several new initiatives aimed at making his players more presentable to a public that will latch on to an issue once on year, on average, and turn it into a broader debate concerning the NBA and society at large.

"If anything, you can hold us responsible for not doing this sooner rather than doing it [at all]," Stern said in an hour-long interview in a conference room next to his office at the league's headquarters in Manhattan. "But for the vast majority of NBA players, it is not an issue.

"The notion is that if you're a professional, with it are certain protocols. One of them is the way you dress when you're on business.

"Our players are off a lot, certainly in the offseason, and when they're not playing or traveling. This doesn't affect that, and they can feel free to express themselves the same way that corporate America expresses itself, putting on shorts and sandals and a ratty old T-shirt and doing what you do."

Pacers president Larry Bird said he fielded more comments from fans about the clothes one of his injured players was wearing during games than he did from fans who simply wanted to discuss the merits of that player's game. The offensive outfit that provoked so much negative feedback was a T-shirt and shorts. Try wearing that to your job next time they have a Casual Friday.

"Young black kids dress like NBA players," Charles Barkley said on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." "Unfortunately, they don't get paid like NBA players. So when they go out in the real world, what they wear is held against them.

"If a well-dressed white kid and a black kid wearing a do-rag and throwback jersey came to me in a job interview, I'd hire the white kid," Barkley said. "That's reality."

Without being defensive, Stern defended himself in discussing the racial and cultural ramifications of the dress code, noting with a chuckle that the story did seem to have tremendous "legs" (journalism slang for staying power).

It seemed to be an epic public relations miscue early last week when Stern's announcement of a $100 million community outreach initiative was buried beneath news and commentary regarding the dress code. But to the commissioner, always spinning positive, the dress code brouhaha actually enabled a few mentions of the NBA Cares program when it otherwise would have been ignored by a mainstream media which routinely ignores the league's outreach initiatives.

"Certainly it makes for spectacular copy. ...

"The majority of [players say], 'What's the big deal? That's the way I dress already, and that sounds fair enough. We're all in this together.'

"But it's such a delicious issue that it will get a lot of ink."

Stern even shrugged off the use of the word "racist," saying he took no offense. With half a lifetime of experience in the league office behind him, he's seen enough topics touch off race-related debates. This is just another in a long line of them.

"Well, things involve race. Whenever you have a league in which some significant percentage is black, then things involve race. That's just the way it's going to be. When you have a league like the WNBA that has all women in it, you're going to end up with gender issues. That's just dependent on the composition of the league. But there's a difference between involving race and having actions interpreted as racist."

Was he surprised by the way racism had been thrown into this debate?

"No, because it was thrown into the issue of raising the entry age. That was an issue that was absolutely, positively about basketball, to have better players, older and more experienced, to have better business by being able to look at players a year later."

But during the debate over whether the age limit should be raised by a year to prevent high school players from jumping directly to the pros, Stern himself had made social policy part of the debate. He had said he didn't want young people, including pre-teens and 13- and 14-year-olds in urban America, to think becoming a professional basketball player was a viable post-high school employment option. To him, there were a few too many impressionable youngsters thinking they had the skills to be the next LeBron James.

Now Stern says: "The one thing I never wanted to do was to be viewed as telling a young person what was good for them."

As long as the NBA is a mostly black league based in a predominantly white country, issues involving race will continue to arise. Some of the debate in the days after The Palace brawl was skewed toward the ethnicity of the players throwing punches and the color of the fans on the receiving ends, and when the outrage crossed from palpable to preposterous it infuriated the commissioner.

"The brawl sort of [became] a flashpoint for a lot of feelings that are out there. With race, there's always an issue. And the brawl, unfairly, became the opportunity for the commentators to talk about all NBA players, although 450 of them were not involved in the brawl. 'These people.' 'These thugs.' 'These punks.' And that was a horrible sort of libel and slander of the NBA players. Images that ran were run in the context of a condemnation of all NBA players, and that really upset me. That became a critical flashpoint. And so we've got to dig out from under that," Stern said.

Repairing the league's image was discussed in collective bargaining talks, and the union agreed to have players sign more autographs, make appearances at season ticket-holder functions and explore ways to act more professionally, such as by adhering to the new dress code.

"We like to think that we [basketball people] are the ultimate egalitarians. You know, 'Shirts and skins and what have you got?' And that's been followed by our teams, who turn to whoever they think will help without regard to race. And we have a very effective business, which is based on exporting a league where the majority happens to be African-American. We feel pretty good about what we've been able to accomplish when all of those issues 25 years ago were hailed as likely to lead to our certain demise. So the fact that there's an outcry about cable, or a little bit of flutter about our dress code policy, that's the NBA. Welcome to our world."

Think about that the next time one of the NBA's hot-button issues crosses over into the mainstream debate. When was the last time there was a healthy racial discussion revolving around issues in the NFL or Major League Baseball? Having the NBA as a conduit for those types of discussions, and having a commissioner who's comfortable spurring those discussions, is a healthy thing for a country where the deteriorating level of discourse has helped fuel the polarization of the population.

The dress code is what it is, but it certainly doesn't make David Stern a racist. He's a man who recognizes race issues must occasionally be confronted. If that discussion has to take place through the forum he oversees, so be it.

"We're the NBA, we're the place -- and that's the good news about the NBA -- we're the place where if you want to engage the world in a single conversation, there's always a safe place to do it in sports. If you listen to the morning shows and you listen to the discussion, it's actually kind of a healthy discussion.

"It shows we have the capacity to engage."

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To email Chris, click here.

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