Welcome to the NBA, This Is a Salad Fork
On Thursday, the newest class of NBA players completed the Rookie Transition Program, a four-day orientation to help rookies acclimate to life in the pros.
The Internet got a kick out of the New York Times's Sarah Lyall live-tweeting some of the invaluable lessons passed down by former players and various experts -- things like, "There are many ways of dressing up a cargo pant," and, "After a game, sign the damn autograph." (Not, mind you, because you wouldn't want to disappoint a little kid who looks up to you, but because you never know if that kid's parents are rich and influential.)
To be fair, some of the advice is helpful, especially with regard to nutrition, and the program could be viewed as an admirable attempt to help a group of young men, many whom come from underprivileged backgrounds, adjust to a life of fancy dinners and fancier people who are probably judging them at every turn. The struggle is real, and not unlike the challenges facing minority students who attend elite schools and find themselves thrust into an unfamiliar culture, a world of khakis and blazers and white linen tablecloths. The Atlantic's Judith Ohikuare detailed the perils of sending underprivileged kids to exclusive institutions that don't properly nurture them, and anyone who's attended an Ivy League university can attest to the awkward situations class differences may create. The renowned Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points to specific cultural traits, including "styles of self-presentation, etiquette and linguistic patterns," as forces formed differently within distinct subgroups, but that inform our judgments about members of those subgroups. The NBA is trying to protect its rookies against the kind of culture shock that may arise with this new lifestyle driven by million-dollar paychecks signed by billion-dollar owners.
And yet, the whole thing is thinly veiled in respectability politics, a charge with which the league has had to contend many times before. Depending on who you ask, former commissioner David Stern should be either praised or reviled for his tactics (rarely his results) in cleaning up the NBA's image. In 2005, the league instituted a dress code requiring business casual attire off the court, an implicitly racist move targeting the sometimes ostentatious fashion associated with hip-hop culture. Nearly 10 years later, stylists are lecturing rookies on the basic requirements of an NBA gentleman's closet, the four dress shirts every man should have, and how to pair the navy blazer with black pants.
This all might seem like harmless, practical, even valuable advice for a group of players who might never have owned an overcoat and should probably know which fork to use during business lunches, especially in preparation for a post-retirement career. After all, you're more likely to replicate Michael or Magic's entrepreneurial success in a blazer than baggy pants. And, certainly, these players are receiving the kind of nurturing and useful life advice that would greatly aid members of the underclass in their quest to climb the social ladder.
But it's also hard to overlook the racial implications of advice such as, "When you're doing an interview, you don't want the first thing they see to be the dreadlocks in your beard," or, "If you don't say something when someone's pants are sagging, that person might be the person who ends up robbing and killing you." This in a league whose plantation dynamic was exposed yet again during the whole Donald Sterling saga.
Yes, it's smart to teach rookies to maintain a positive image to help parlay their playing careers to post-retirement success, and in practical terms, you probably won't get a good job if you show up to an interview "with your pants hanging off your behind." But as Columbia University's Fredrick C. Harris put it in his cardinal essay in Dissent Magazine on the rise of respectability politics, the real burden has always been on the black poor to prove that they're respectable rather than question or subvert the system that incontrovertibly renders them otherwise. It's akin to Stephen A. Smith suggesting that a woman should do all she can to avoid "provoking" a man into beating her. No, the problem is with the aggressor and the culture that allows him to flourish; the solution is not in altering the behavior of the victim.
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