Thursday, January 29, 2009

Digging deeper, seeing wider

I was recently in an online discussion about the NBA dress code and its racial implications. As it addresses a broader issue of seeing only personally important issues in larger issues, something I find in all manner of discussions (religion and politics being two), I think my response bears repeating here. Additionally, I hope you find the information I have gleaned about the subject matter itself, information that while readily available seems unknown to so many people, to be interesting as well. The assertion was that the NBA's dress code was based entirely upon racism. Here is my response:

In order to adequately address your points, it is important to discuss both the advent of hip hop fashion, as well as the state of the NBA when this fashion reached it’s crescendo there. I will start with the former: 

The genesis of hip hop fashion (baggy pants, over-sized, un-tucked shirts, etc.) is actually a Mexican invention, not a black one. It originated in the California penal system. Mexican gangs devised this style of dress as a way to stamp their identity onto prison issue uniforms. Given that all the uniforms looked the same (OK, that was pretty obvious), going for larger sizes and un-tucking them created a unique and identifiable look. 

Since most gang leadership was and is in a constant state of migration to (and often from) prison, and given the fact that leaders often retained their posts during incarceration (in many cases, they were and are revered for their “martyrdom”), the fashion on the inside soon passed to the outside. This was abetted by the fact that this “uniform” was ideal for concealing weaponry. Of course, on the outside, variations in color as well as other items not available to prisoners rapidly were added to the uniform. 

At some point, and as there is very little authoritative documentation, I will leave off a description of how and when, this style was adopted by black gangs as well. They in turn added their own symbology, including ostentatious jewelry, sports jerseys, and basketball sneakers (more on this shortly). 

What moved this into the mainstream was the rise of gangster rap. Its acts were members of, associated with, or at the very least identified themselves by gang culture, primarily LA gang culture. Thus the style of dress in this culture was a prominent part of their video image (along with guns, drugs, and “ho’s”). It is interesting to note that the fast and wide spread of this style was due in large part to the backing of (white) music moguls and clothing designers (Tommy Hilfiger being probably the most influential), who saw the marketing potential, and the profit to be made selling this narrow urban slice to a wide sector of bored, affluent, and yes white, suburban teens. Hilfiger reckoned that rock and roll didn’t reach these youth anymore, since their parents approved of rock and roll, the kiss of death in teen fashion. To paraphrase, he (correctly) noted that both the music itself and the style of dress/ lifestyle associated with it were guaranteed to piss suburban parents off, thus guaranteeing appeal among young, testosterone-laden white males. This was to be a goldmine of marketing possibilities, where album sales were just the leader into apparel sales. Along the way, tragically, this entire mélange of accoutrements and violent, misogynist lifestyle became accepted as a (the?) legitimate representation of black culture (but that is an entirely different discussion), and ultimately overshadowed the musical art-form it co-mingled with. 

Now to the NBA. At this time, the league was engulfed in two distinct problems. Both of them are tied to Michael Jordan. 

The first problem was the game itself. Given that the league had almost wholly abandoned it’s rivalries and stars theme for a one-star-to-rule-them-all system, and given MJ’s unrivaled prowess, teams led by coaches such as Mike Fratello, Pat Riley, and Jeff Van Gundy began devising defensive schemes designed to reduce the game to a slow-down slugfest, the better to try to nullify MJ. The game became quite an ugly thing, bearing little or no resemblance to the beauty of the game a decade earlier. The product was becoming boring. It was also devolving into a partisan dichotomy of Jordan lovers and critics, with less and less of the old rivalries and regional potency. 

The second problem, related to the first, was marketing. MJ was the greatest pitchman Madison Avenue had ever seen (check out the stock market plunge when he retired). He brought about the first piece of marketing gold, the uber-star shoe. No shoe (or any other article of apparel) before or since has matched the Air Jordan in market share or category creation. This shoe (and the ones to follow), along with the subsequent jersey phenomenon, was very quickly adopted by the burgeoning hip hop/ gangster rap scene. Thus the marriage between basketball and hip hop fashion was cemented. The galaxy of lesser stars also put out shoes, and marketed them through hip hop channels. “Street cred” (loosely translated as being or at least appearing “hard”, gangsta-ish, and yes, at least a bit dangerous) became a ubiquitous phrase, and an NBA baller had to have it in order to move merchandise. 

The NBA was very aware of this marketing phenomenon. They also profited greatly from it. A whole new group of people were avid fans, and their tie to it was hip hop fashion and lifestyle. So you began to hear hip hop at games. Of course, for the most part these fans weren’t the big-dollar ticket base, but they were filling the coffers from apparel sales. 

With the retirement of Jordan, the league found itself in tremendous peril. The game wasn’t as good, the rivalries and multi-star system had been abandoned, so there was a huge vacuum. With television and other basketball-related revenues struggling, the league scrambled to find its next MJ. Unfortunately, its MJ-centric system had left it with no heirs, merely a slew of hip-hop-oriented apparel salesmen. But at least apparel brought money, so for a time the league hitched itself strongly to this identity. The problem with this was that these stars, personified by Allen Iverson, turned off basketball purists as well as the older, monied mainstream fans who the league relied on for the basketball-related revenue. Was there a racial component? Sure, but to limit it to race is to deny an entire panoply of related issues. 

The league adapted, slowly but surely. It changed and re-changed rules in an effort to bringing back the free-flowing, offense-oriented game. It began (in deference to the success of the NFL) to try to return to teams, rivalries, and parity. It also realized that while hip-hop was now an integral part of the scene, it couldn’t be the sole, dominant face (as an aside, I think this explains the league's fascination with and support of the Spurs. Smaller market, fundamental, older style of play, and Robinson and Duncan were the antithesis of the AI-style persona, while also being black). 

The dress code was simply one in a long line of things the league did (including broadening the music, marketing in Asia and Europe, among others), to broaden and mainstream its appeal. You can define this strictly as racial politics, but to do so, you have to ignore a mountain of other things…

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