Over the past two weeks, the hoodie has gone from a wardrobe staple to a statement of solidarity. Everyone from elementary school students to the former governor of Michigan have posted photos of themselves wearing hooded sweatshirts to mourn the needless death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and support the arrest of his killer, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. In a 911 call, Zimmerman described Trayvon's hoodie and his black skin as evidence that the unarmed teenager was a threat to his gated community in Sanford, Florida.
One of the most powerful hoodie images was a picture of the Miami Heat players with their hoods obscuring their faces. It was notable because professional athletes don't often take a stance on anything even remotely controversial. Indeed, the photo was tweeted by Heat superstar LeBron James, who rarely speaks out on societal or political issues.
The Heat were Trayvon's favorite team—he was watching several of them play in the NBA All-Star Game when he went out for a snack and didn't come home—which makes the team photo particularly meaningful. But in the NBA, the symbolism of this stance on this issue wearing this clothing item goes deeper. Because for the past six years, NBA players have been banned from wearing hoodies while at games, press conferences, and other league events.
NBA commissioner David Stern, that paragon of white paternalism toward the black athletes he employs, instituted a dress code at the start of the 2005 season as part of a push to make the league look"a little less gangsta and a little more genteel," as The New York Times helpfully summarized. The policy, which came on the heels of the infamous brawl between players and fans at a 2004 game in Detroit, prohibited players on "team business" from wearing shorts; sleeveless shirts; t-shirts; "chains, pendants, or medallions;" any headgear; headphones; sunglasses indoors; and any "sports apparel" (including hoodies). It introduced the phrase "business casual" to professional sports for the first time, requiring collared dress shirts or turtlenecks; dress slacks, khaki pants or dress jeans; and dress shoes or boots or "other presentable shoes" with socks.
In other words, it formally banned the styles most popular with players—and, not coincidentally, rappers—and suggested khakis (I mean, khakis) and button-downs instead. Dress less like urban black 20-somethings and more like white office-park denizens, Stern advised. (In the photo above, the Heat aren't technically violating the rule because they're not appearing at an official NBA event.)
After some initial outcry (led, unsurprisingly, by circa-2005 NBA bad boy Allen Iverson), the dress code was accepted without much fuss and seems all but forgotten. In part, that's because fashion has changed over the past several years—baggy pants and gold chains aren't the prevailing style in either hip-hop or basketball anymore, as Grantland's Wesley Morris wrote last year in an essay about "the rise of the NBA nerd." But the fact that what's trendy in 2012 also happens to be acceptable to Stern should underscore the absurdity of having a dress code in the first place.
Which, of course, brings us back to Trayvon Martin. A huge percentage of basketball players understand what it's like to be judged for being young and black and wearing their hoods pulled up. They've been lectured for dressing too "ghetto," told they'd get more respect if they wore fitted khakis instead of sagging jeans. Charles Barkley vocally supported the NBA dress code, saying "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. That's reality."
The folly of Rivera's argument, and Barkley's, was that they assume clothes communicate the kind of person someone is, that an apparel item as ubiquitous as a hoodie could possibly indicate criminal behavior. NBA players didn't become better people when they switched from oversized sweatshirts and 'do rags to knit cardigans and thick-rimmed glasses. Trayvon had no obligation to wear khakis to indicate he wasn't a threat. When LeBron and company pulled up their hoods and tweeted the photo, they stood up for Trayvon, but also for themselves.