Dress codes in professional sports?

point counterpoint

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As the NBA season officially opened this week, debate was still vibrant over one of the NBA’s newest initiatives—the dress code. The new guidelines call for “business casual” attire to be worn by a team member “whenever they are engaged in team or league business”.

The era of showing up on game days wearing T-Shirts, shorts and headphones are gone as all three of these pieces of attire—all common in the NBA—have been banned. When this new measure was announced, discussion commenced almost immediately throughout the NBA Players Association (NBAPA). Many argued that this was an attempt by NBA Commissioner David Stern to place a limit on their self-expression.

But need I remind these critics from the NBAPA that they are professionals completing a job that just happens to take place on a court and not in a courtroom, government building or big business high-rise. I can think of very few professionals, in any occupation, who do not have some kind of standard for their dress.

We need to look no further than the NHL and NFL to find proof that a dress code is not unreasonable. In hockey, players have been wearing ties and dress shirts to games since they were 12.

The NFL, a league in which athletes are immensely popular because of their vibrant and diverse personalities, is also one of the most restrictive when it comes to players’ attire. Players are sanctioned if something as minor as towels on their uniforms are not of NFL-approved colour, size and shape.

The results speak for themselves. Both leagues feature popular and dynamic personalities that inspire youth around the world.

Over the summer, the NBA took a long, hard look at some troubling statistics during collective bargaining negotiations with the Players Association. NBA polling suggests that their players are the least popular athletes in North America and that basketball has seen a dramatic drop in TV ratings. This past year’s NBA Finals series saw a 29 per cent drop in viewership from the year before. The NBA needs a make-over.

The NBA is not signalling out dress in isolation. The league is undertaking an aggressive campaign to remake its image in an attempt to bring fans back. Evidence can be seen in the very same document as it lays out new projects like the $100-million initiative called “NBA Cares,” designed to improve community relations.

It is in the best interest of both the league and the players to ensure the athletes who endorse the game are viewed as professionals so as to maintain the game’s long-term sustainability and popularity.

--James English

counterpoint

The most talked about item in the NBA this pre-season has been the new dress code. NBA players have called it everything from “fake” to racist. Boston’s Paul Pierce argued that NBA players are not businessmen, but are merely entertainers. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, one of the quietest superstars in the league, stated eloquently that it is “a load of crap.” If everyone from little-leaguers to minor hockey players can deal with a dress code, why can’t the NBA? The answer lies in what statement the dress code makes in the eyes of the players.

It is a fact that a huge generational abyss exists between the modern NBA player and the fans who attend the games. The dress code is seen as a lukewarm attempt by NBA commissioner David Stern to bridge this gap.

The NBA is now scrambling to remedy a situation they created and promoted. Young men who barely graduate from high school become multi-millionaires overnight, and in a generation that glorifies spinning rims and getting “krunked” on Nelly’s Pimp Juice and Hypno, a negative reaction by fans to many players seems inevitable.

The NBA has consistently glossed over the league’s more controversial players—notably air-brushing out Allen Iverson’s tattoos on the cover of NBA Magazine—instead focusing on the Dwight Howards and David Robinsons of the league (a devout Christian and a squeaky clean Navy graduate, respectively).

This approach of quick fixes was in place long before Iverson entered the league in 1997, and it was only after players were punching out fans at the “Brawl at the Palace” in Detroit—and the image crisis that resulted—that this dress code was considered. The NBA is trying to create role models for its fans.

Dress code for professional sports in general? Sure, but not when it’s a response to an alarming distance between fan and player, and certainly not when it betrays the style in which many of the players feel comfortable. Too little, too late.

Hall of Famer Charles Barkley argues that youths emulate their basketball heroes and are the target of negative judgement that NBA players can escape because of their status. Well Charles, here’s hoping that NBA players will call you on it and, as ESPN’s Patrick Hruby suggests, they don’t get mad: they get plaid. Hawaiian shirts have collars, right? If Barkley is right, I’m really hoping Ron Artest follows through with his promised burgundy shirt and lavender sport coat, so that the impressionable youth in the inner cities of America will start bringing back purple and maybe an ascot or two. It’s been far too long.

--Mike Thornburn

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