Fresh Dressed: Fashion and Black Masculinity in Pro Sports

“For me to sit here and tell you I wasn’t the best-dressed, I would be lying to you.”
-Jamal Adams, 2017 NFL Draft

Where can you find Christian Louboutins, pink blazers, and lots of floral prints? If you said the Kentucky Derby or an Alpha Kappa Alpha soiree you would be wrong. No, this was the attire worn by many of the young black men selected in this April’s National Football League (NFL) draft. The NFL draft could have been a runway for Fashion Week. Clemson University’s All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson stole the show with a navy blue tuxedo, black bowtie, and a pair of spikey Christian Louboutin Dandy Pik Pik flat smoking slippers. Deshaun’s slippers, $1,995.00. Being drafted into the NFL, priceless. Western Michigan University wide receiver Corey Davis tried to steal the spotlight with his pink, excuse me, salmon colored blazer. University of Washington receiver John Ross would have made Prince smile with his purple suit. Louisiana State University safety Jamal Adams strolled the red carpet wearing a white windowpane plaid double-breasted suit with a pair of white oxford shoes. As I watched this draft I sat back waiting for Outkast to bless the stage with a surprise performance of their 2001 hit “So Fresh, So Clean.”

When these new millionaires make their NFL debuts in the fall they will be joining a fraternity that includes some of the freshest dressed black men in America. Cam Newton’s postgame outfits are as exciting as his play on the football field. Cam, the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2015, is liable to show up to his postgame interview looking like he just left a photoshoot for GQ. One Sunday Cam gives you a lilac blazer with black capri pants and black velvet slippers. The next Sunday he has on a black top hat and round framed eye glasses which make him resemble Mr. Peanut, the mascot for Planters Peanuts. Another week he has one of his 60 foxtails attached to his skinny jeans. Cam admits that the foxtails have set him back about $12,000. And who could forget the $849 zebra-print Versace skinny jeans that he was wearing as he arrived in California to play in Super Bowl LI. He was benched for the opening drive of a game for violating the team’s dress code by wearing a black turtleneck rather than a shirt and tie. Social media focused more on Cam’s outfit than Kendrick Lamar’s concert at last month’s Annual Coachella Music Festival. The dude arrived at the festival wearing a dark blue romper with orange floral print. His accessories included colorful bracelets, a khaki colored straw fedora hat with a green band, dark sunshades, and an unlit cigar. Oh, just in case you are unfamiliar with a romper it is a one-piece combination of shorts and a shirt primarily worn by women and little children at the beach. Cam is a 28-year-old, 6’5”, 250 pound black man proudly wearing a romper in public. In the words of Atlanta trap music star Future, “That’s Too Much Sauce!”

Cam’s Coachella outfit may have indirectly inspired Kickstarter projects to raise money to design more male rompers. According to Cam’s father Cecil his taste for clothes began as a punishment during the sixth grade. Cecil made him wear a suit to school as a punishment; however it backfired and a style maverick was born. In 2013 Cam started his own clothing line at Belk department stores across the South called MADE. Whether it is “Killa” Cam, Odell Beckham, Jr., Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., Russell Westbrook, or the entire National Basketball Association (NBA) professional black male athletes are unafraid to define themselves and challenge conventional norms of masculinity through the medium of fashion. Now this is certainly not a new phenomenon. Black male athletes have been dressing to the nines since the days of Jack Johnson. Over the course of the 20th and 21st century fashion trends have evolved along with the parameters for what is considered a “respectable” expression of black masculinity. Ultimately, the black male’s relationship with fashion is a microcosm of the larger African-American community.

Sunday’s best
As the son of a preacher I am quite familiar with the expression “Sunday’s best”, which refers to the outfits worn at African-American churches across the country every weekend. I remember seeing my grandfather lay out his suit and shine his shoes Saturday evenings. My grandma would iron his dress shirt and underwear on Saturdays to make sure he was literally fresh from head to toe. This ritual of looking your best for church dates back to slavery when the plantation owners encouraged their black laborers to look their best for “de lawd” on Sunday morning. During the Jim Crow era Sundays were one of the few days that working class blacks could dress in their finest attire. A man may have only owned one suit and one pair of dress shoes, but he wore it with so much swagger that onlookers could mistake him for a king.
The emphasis on fashion amongst black men dates back several centuries. Illustrations of African kings such as Mansa Musa display men in regal gold crowns. Marcus Garvey and the members of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) would continue this regal tradition in the 1920s. Professor Monica L. Miller emphasizes the importance of sartorial style to black identity formation in the Atlantic diaspora. In her book Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, Miller discusses the concept of luxury slaves. These were male servants in 18th century England who were dandified for the pleasure of their white owners. In a manner similar to Cam Newton’s sixth grade punishment these luxury slaves learned to make their fashion a source of identity and empowerment. Julius Soubise, a freed slave in London, walked through town in his diamond-buckled, red-heeled shoes. This 18th century version of the black dandy would be reborn in the Harlem Renaissance, in African-American elite circles, and various representations of black cosmopolitanism.

The controversial boxer Jack Johnson was a dandy. A white sportswriter featured in the Ken Burns’ 2005 documentary film Unforgivable Blackness called Johnson a sport, an early 20th century term used to describe a man who lived larger than life. The sport drank to excess. He drove fast cars. If he was married you could not tell from the number of women in his company. Most importantly the sport loved to dress. Jack Johnson was the quintessential sport. He wore top hats, tailored suits, wide lapels, and diamond stick pins. He had gold caps on his front teeth. Culture critic Stanley Crouch gets giddy when speaks of Johnson’s style: “the shoes he picked, the socks he wore, the cut of his pants, the cut of his jackets, the shirts, the ties, THE HATS! He was always much sharper than they were, smiling at the camera with his gold teeth as if to say I’m here and you’re not.”

Jack Johnson’s swagger in the dressing room matched what he brought to his profession and overall lifestyle. Born in Galveston, Texas, one year after the end of Reconstruction to two former slaves, he started from the bottom and reached the pinnacle in professional boxing. He became the first black man to hold the heavyweight championship belt after defeating Tommy Burns (born Noah Brusso) in 1908. At that time boxing was one of the nation’s top three sports. The heavyweight champion was treated like the standard bearer for American masculinity. Thus Johnson’s victory was met with expected derision. Race riots erupted across the nation on the night of his victory. Boxing promoters scrambled to find a “great white hope” to knock Johnson out in the ring. When that did not work Congress passed the Mann Act which made it a federal crime to take white women across states lines for sex. Jack Johnson, a dark-skinned man with a bald head, always had a bevy of “Beckys with the good hair” at his side. I found a black-and-white photo of Johnson adorned in a black top coat, top hat, shiny black shoes, pleated pants, and walking stick in his left hand. Standing beside him was a white woman in a full length fur coat. Such images not only sickened whites, but they also troubled prominent African-American leaders like Booker T. Washington. Keep in mind that black men throughout the South were being lynched at alarming rates on the accusation of raping white women.

Minstrel shows mocked urban black dandies like Johnson who used sophisticated vocabulary and dressed better than most white men. Nevertheless, Johnson’s cavalier attitude towards being seen publicly with white women and his lack of respect for his white opponents in the boxing ring worked in concert with the confidence displayed in his attire. Jack Johnson’s “Unforgivable Blackness” made him an outlaw in mainstream America. His athletic prowess, bravado, and sartorial style made him an eternal hero for black America.

Killing Me Softly with his Respectability Song
Fashion was an understated signifier of the Civil Rights Movement. Episodes of the brilliant Eyes on the Prize documentary series show black protesters dressed in their Sunday’s best. The Selma marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge looked like they were coming from church. The movement’s leaders were always cognizant of their appearance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was typically attired in a conservative business suit, tie, and occasionally a small-brimmed fedora. King’s style was a byproduct of his profession as a Baptist minister and respectability politics. According to professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham respectability was not intended to be elitist. When poor black workers put on their Sunday best for protests during the 1950s and 1960s they were demanding to be respected as human beings. Nonviolent civil rights activists refused to fight back to demonstrate that they were more respectable than their attackers. Respectability, says Higginbotham, is about character and one’s moral compass. Martin Luther King, Jr., dressed and spoke well to denote the respect that he had for himself.

Jackie Robinson was the most recognizable black athlete at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Robinson integrated Major League Baseball two years after World War II ended. He would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award, National League MVP award, a World Series ring, and play in five more World Series. Robinson used his platform to fight for civil rights. In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision he demanded that he and his teammates have full access to the lobbies, bars, and swimming pools of the hotels where they stayed. During the 1950s he was busy fundraising for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and registering new black voters. The NAACP rewarded him with the Spingarn Award, their highest honor, which was also given to Thurgood Marshall, A Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Respectability was an essential part of Robinson’s public image. Wendell Smith, a black sports journalist for The Pittsburgh Courier, advocated for him to be brought up from the Negro Leagues because he saw him as the one player who represented the goals of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Jackie Robinson was even tempered, college educated, an army veteran, handsome, well spoken, and well dressed. Photographs of Robinson and his beautiful wife Rachel display a young couple who looked like your average middle class white family in the 1950s. One of my favorite photographs has the Robinsons sitting on the front steps of their house. Jackie is wearing a short sleeve white button dress shirt, khaki colored pants, white dress socks, and black lace up dress shoes. He is holding his son Jackie, Jr., who has on a similar shirt, khaki colored shorts, white socks, and Oxford saddle lace up shoes. Rachel is wearing a gorgeous summer dress with a white sleeveless blazer, and black high heels. The photo symbolized many things: black excellence, mainstream acceptance, respectability, and the heights that other blacks could one day reach. Black churchgoers were among Robinson’s biggest fans. When the Brooklyn Dodgers came to play in a nearby city black pastors would encourage their members to attend the games to cheer on their hero Robinson. Pastors encouraged them to wear their Sunday’s best as they sat in the stands. Once again it was about not just looking good, but killing Jim Crow softly with respectability.

Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud

“Malcolm X, dressed in a business suit, his tie dangling, one hand parting a window shade, the other holding a rifle. The portrait communicated everything I wanted to be – controlled, intelligent, and beyond the fear.”
-Ta-Nehisi Coates

Malcolm X bridged the gap between the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s-early 1960s and the Black Power Movement which emerged after his death in 1965. Malcolm, like Martin King, was generally attired in a conservative dark business suit. An issue of Jet magazine published on March 26, 1964, has Malcolm on the cover wearing a small-brimmed black fedora, glasses, top coat, crisp white shirt, and a tie. Standing beside Malcolm is 22-year-old Cassius Clay, fresh off his defeat of heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston. Clay, in contrast to his mentor, is wearing a full length black leather jacket. Cassius would soon rename himself Muhammad Ali. Another photo of this dynamic duo featured the two men clowning around in a diner full of people. Muhammad Ali is dressed in dark suit and bowtie; the standard uniform of Nation of Islam members. Ali did not have to dress ostentatiously like Jack Johnson, but he could still create a stir with the simplest of fashion statements. The best example of this would be his iconic 1968 photo on the cover of Esquire magazine. He stands in only his white Everlast gym shorts and his white boxing shoes. Ali has five arrows in his chest and one in his left leg. The caption at the bottom of the page reads “The Passion of Muhammad Ali.” The photography was symbolic of Ali’s crucifixion at the hands of the United States government for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs.

Muhammad Ali was among the most prominent figures of the Black Power Movement. His Esquire photo shoot was published in April 1968, six months prior to the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico. At those Olympics two more black power era athletes would make history with their simple fashion statements. American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith chose to use their appearance in the 200 meter final to protest racism and poverty in America, the persecution of Ali, and demonstrate their support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) led by Professor Harry Edwards. Carlos and Smith were each supposed to wear black gloves for their famous black power salute with their fists raised in the air. Carlos had forgotten to bring his gloves to the track, so Peter Norman, a white Australian sprinter who won the silver medal, advised them to wear black gloves on alternate hands. When the trio took the medal stand after the 200-meter final Norman wore a small badge on his left breast in support of the black sprinters. Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the Olympics for their gesture and labeled as unpatriotic. Norman became an outcast in Track and Field and in Australia for wearing the badge on his uniform. Besides the leather gloves, Carlos wore a necklace of beads representing the nooses tied around the necks of lynching victims. Carlos’s track suit top was unzipped to show solidarity with blue collar workers. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck meant to represent black power. Neither man wore shoes to emphasize the poverty back in America. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, boycotted the 1968 Olympics and chose to remain home. However, he would follow the lead of Ali and these other activist athletes throughout the end of the decade and into the 1970s. When Kareem played with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s he proudly wore his blackness on his head. Kareem’s thick afro hairstyle and bushy side burns were right in step with the “Say It Loud, I’m Black I’m Proud” attitude of the decade. Other ballers, Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Artis Gilmore, helped to popularize blown out afros in professional sports and popular culture. And then there was Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star pitcher Dock Ellis, Jr., who played with rollers in his hair to help his afro grow out. Ellis may have also been the first athlete to wear cornrows in a Major League Baseball game.

The Black Power Movement had a major impact on the style of black men in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Conservative suits and haircuts were replaced with leather jackets, black berets, dashikis, and afros. The Black Panthers attracted some of their recruits solely because they looked cool. Black men’s fashion was also being shaped by new trends in the streets. Infamous drug dealers and pimps like Frank Lucas, Nicky Barns, Felix “The Cat” Mitchell, and Frank Ward were challenging the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers for the souls of black folk. These outlaws, who used the criminal underground to empower themselves and exert their manhood, were among the best dressed in town. Frank Lucas and his wife, a former homecoming queen from Puerto Rico, looked like movie stars in their full length chinchilla coats as they sat ring side at Madison Square Garden for the “Fight of the Century, 1971” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Lucas’ coat cost $100,000 and his matching chinchilla hat was $25,000.

The funeral procession for Oakland’s most notorious black gangster Felix “The Cat” Mitchell included a horse drawn carriage conveying his $6,000 bronze coffin, 14 Rolls Royce limousines, and Ferraris before thousands of mourners. These black outlaws soon became folk heroes in Hollywood. Junius Griffin, the president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, coined the term Blaxploitation Cinema to describe a new genre of films that were produced and written by white men for the purpose of making a profit in poor black communities. The Blaxploitation era was at its peak between 1971 and 1976. Films such as Super Fly (1972), The Mack (1973), and Black Caesar (1973) helped to transform these black bad men into ghetto superheroes with the finest vines (clothes) and whips (cars). The Mack’s anti-hero Goldie literally wore a cape inside his pimpmobile. No one brought the outlaw’s ice cold style to professional sports more than the man they called Clyde.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1967. Frazier, a 6’4” point guard from Atlanta, led the Knicks to their only championships in 1970 and 1973. Pairing up in the backcourt with fellow guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Frazier turned the Knicks into the hottest ticket on Broadway. Frazier was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987. Millennials probably recognize him as the Knicks older announcer who wears “red cow print” and “tiger print” suits loud enough to make the late Craig Sager’s wardrobe look mundane. However, nearly a half century ago Frazier was the most stylish man in professional sports. He appeared on the cover of Jet in a full length fur coat and white fedora. His postgame wardrobe included wide brim hats, black turtlenecks, bell bottoms, gold chains, and capes.

Clyde was a superhero who drove through New York City like Super Fly in his shiny Rolls Royce. I would not be surprised if Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” played on cue when he walked into a room. Frazier’s teammates nicknamed him Clyde because he wore wide brim hats like Warren Beatty’s character in the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde. In 1973 Frazier became the first NBA player to sign a major shoe deal. His suede Puma sneakers were a paradigm shift for the business of sports. Prior to the Puma Clydes NBA players were wearing Chuck Taylors for free. Frazier was paid to wear and design his own kicks (sneakers), planting the seeds for future athletes to empower themselves.

Must be the Money

“You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good. You play good, they pay good. They pay good, you live good.”
-Deion Sanders

Walt “Clyde” Frazier ruled the court and the runway in the 1970s. Several guys filled his shoes on and off the playing field in the 1980s and early 1990s. Complex magazine voted Deion Sanders, A.K.A Primetime and Neon Deion, the freshest dressed of the time period. Deion was a two sport all-star athlete in football and baseball who won Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Today Deion looks and sounds more like the pastor of a megachurch when he is interviewing current athletes for the NFL Network. But back in his playing days he was posing for photos shirtless with a colossal gold dollar bill sign chain around his neck. Another photo has Deion “stunting” in a diamond dollar bill sign earring, fancy shades, and more gold everything than Trinidad James. The only thing shinier than his jewelry was his wet Jeri Curl. Deion’s style was a combination of 1980s hip-hop and drug dealer chic (think Nino Brown in New Jack City). On the field he wore colorful do-rags (bandanas), gloves, and white high top Nike sneakers. His 1994 music video “Must be the Money” was a four minute celebration of his mantra: “You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good. You play good, they pay good. They pay good, you live good.”

Style in the era was also defined by the two Mikes: Tyson and Jordan. Iron Mike Tyson may have been the most feared man in professional boxing, but he was not too macho to pay attention to his appearance. He walked in the ring for fights to the booming bass of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” sporting black Everlast boxing trunks, black ankle socks, and black boxing shoes. Tyson’s objective was to intimidate his opponents before they touched gloves. “Once I am in the ring I am a god. No one can beat me.” Mike’s trademark faded haircut with a part cut on the side also added to his fight night swag. Outside of the ring he was just as flashy as Jack Johnson. Shopping sprees at the Versace store nearly bankrupted the champ. One photo shows him and his former promoter Don King wearing matching full length fur coats. Another photo has Tyson, sitting beside King on a stack of hay, dressed in a red leather overall short set with a gold watch on his wrist. A picture taken at a party in the mid-1990s shows Tyson with then Ralph Lauren model Tyson Beckford. Tyson is wearing a black turtle neck, Black suspenders, black leather pants, and a black driving cap turned backwards. This is an interesting picture because Tyson Beckford’s sexuality has long been questioned due to stereotypes about male models. However, Mike Tyson is so macho that no one would dare question his masculinity due to the company he was keeping or that unique outfit.

Mike Tyson made his professional boxing debut on March 6, 1985. During that same year Michael Jordan changed fashion forever with the debut of his new Nike Air Jordan sneakers. The 22-year-old Jordan was fined $5,000 a game for violating the NBA’s uniform policy by wearing black, red, and white high tops. Thanks to Jordan’s awe-inspiring play and Nike designer Tinker Hatfield’s creative genius, the Air Jordans became the number one luxury item for young black males growing up on sports and hip-hop. The Jordans paved the way for future sneaker brands by Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Lavar Ball. Young black males from working class backgrounds would do anything to own these $125 sneakers worn by Michael Jordan. Andre Leon Talley, a black man and the former American editor-at-large of Vogue magazine, says urban young people are addicted to fashion because they see it as an expression of aspiration. The Jordans with their iconic logo of a man literally jumping out of his circumstances to attain unfathomable heights of greatness were aspirational signifiers of wealth and success. “Jumpman, Jumpman, them boys up to something,” raps Drake. The Jordan Brand is largely responsible for Nike’s annual sales of $16 billion. But there is a price for so much success. Since the late eighties these sneakers have been associated with violence in black communities. A 1990 Sports Illustrated article about the violence associated with Jordans told the story of Michael Eugene Thomas, a fifteen-year-old high school student in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who was found strangled by a seventeen-year-old friend who killed him for his shoes.
Michael Jordan affected the culture in other ways. Similar to Jack Johnson he was a dark-skinned man with a bald head. Unlike in Johnson’s day, Jordan was not seen as a threat to white masculinity or white women. His apolitical sensibility made him a perfect character in the conservative age of President Ronald Reagan and The Cosby Show. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” is a famous quote that Jordan is believed to have had said in 1990.

As Jordan matured as a mainstream celebrity he became known for wearing tailor made Italian designer executive suits. Several NBA players copied his style, but one emerging superstar from Georgetown University had no desire to be like Mike.

Niggas Wit Attitudes
Allen Iverson was for mid-1990s hip-hop fashion what Clyde Frazier was for the Blaxploitation Era. The Philadelphia 76ers diminutive point guard played and dressed with an “I don’t give a f_ _ k” attitude that made a generation of young people adore him, Reebok executives wealthy, and NBA commissioner David Stern enact a mandatory dress code. Iverson’s first primetime television interview was on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show (1997-2000). For this interview he traded in Jordan’s Italian suit for a black do-rag, black t-shirt, baggy black jeans, two platinum necklaces with crosses, a platinum bracelet, a diamond encrusted watch, and gaudy diamond earrings. “Look at all that ice on you. I need a scarf,” joked Chris Rock. Iverson does not take credit for the fashion trends he started. “I didn’t make it up. This is how the guys from my hood used to dress,” he told Complex magazine. Although he may not have started this look soon young black men in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and boxing were wearing baggy jeans sagging off their butts, oversized jerseys and t-shirts, do-rags, and bling-bling (ostentatious displays of jewelry) to symbolize their lucrative 7-8 figure contracts. Iverson helped to make cornrows and tattoos mainstream fashion trends. Often described as Tupac in gym shorts, his popularity benefitted from the growth of hip-hop, especially gangsta rap, at the start of the decade. While kids and young adults loved the NBA’s new bad boy image many older sports fans were uncomfortable with this brand of masculinity. Iverson was viewed by many as a thug. Juan Williams, a black political analyst on the Fox News Channel, said that his look suggested that success was tied into a “gangsta, prison attitude.” NBA head coach Phil Jackson made similar comments. Iverson did not smile like Earvin “Magic” Johnson nor cater to white republicans like Jordan. He often embodied what scholars called a cool pose. Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson argue in their book Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America (1993), that black males adopt a set of aloof attitudes, language, truculent mannerisms, swagger, and bodily movements to mask feelings of powerlessness. Fashion symbols from gaudy gold chains to sagging pants are examples of this cool pose. J. Cole elaborates on this exaggerated performance of manhood in his 2016 song “Foldin Clothes”:

“Niggas from the hood is the best actors… Put your frown on before they think you soft. Never smile too long or take your defense off.”
-J. Cole

Critics of hip-hop view this cool pose as a signifier for a culture of violence in black America and a reason for the fear of young black men. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic, calls the cool pose a signifier for a culture of self-preservation for these often stigmatized boys and men.

On November 19, 2004, a brawl occurred between the black players from the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons that spilled into the stands of the Palace of Auburn Hills area. Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson began punching the white fans in the stands. This tragic incident, known as The Malice at the Palace, resulted in the passage of a mandatory dress code to alleviate the perceived thug element that had taken over the NBA due to the popularity of Iverson and the league’s full embrace of hip-hop culture. Players would be fined if they did not dress in what was considered a more “professional and respectable” manner. At the time players and black media members denounced the dress code as being racially motivated. Twelve years later the dress code is being praised for not only eradicating the league’s thug image, but for allowing professional athletes to challenge gender norms in the African-American community.

Macho, Macho Man. I Gotta be a Macho!
Many of the black millennials entering the NBA as the dress code was being implemented surprisingly gravitated towards styles of dress that would have been considered “too white” or gay in the late 1990s. Today’s athletes in the NBA and NFL have personal stylists such as Rachel Johnson who shape their image. Johnson, an alumnus of Florida A& M University and a student of legendary stylist June Ambrose, dresses stars like Amar’e Stoudemire, Victor Cruz, and most notably LeBron James. Johnson is described as LeBron’s “lifestylist.” She helped get LeBron out of his over-sized throwback jerseys and put him in tailored executive suits which make him look like a man who runs a business empire. She is partly responsible for his relationship with Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and his appearances on the cover of the magazine and GQ. She inspired LeBron to take risks such as carrying a murse (a man purse that is popular among straight men in European countries) to a game in 2012. When LeBron teamed up with fellow fashionista Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat (2010-2014) the two future hall of famers pushed the boundaries on the term metrosexual (an urban heterosexual man who is meticulous about his appearance). One pregame photo shows LeBron dressed in a blue blazer, slim fit gray dress slacks, a white pocket square, wingtip shoes, a tie bar to keep his tie in place, and sun shades. Wade walks behind him in an orange cardigan sweater, orange shirt and pants, and an orange murse. Wade takes more risks with his fashion choices than his former teammate. He has worn salmon colored pants to games. His double breasted Gucci blazer with capri dress pants and loafers is legendary for good and bad reasons.

The only player in today’s NBA more stylish than Wade is the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, nicknamed “Furious Styles” by ESPN personality Jalen Rose. Westbrook plays with a reckless abandon that is reminiscent of Allen Iverson. Fox Sports host Colin Cowherd routinely chastises Westbrook’s style of play and attitude by referring to him as “Kanye West-brook.” An interesting nickname given Kanye West’s obsession with clothes, his hubris, and his unapologetic blackness. Westbrook possesses all of these same qualities, which might ruffle the feathers of white media members like Cowherd. Westbrook’s fashion is an extension of his overall persona as a black man that is not here for your restrictions placed upon him. “Anyone that can walk out of the house with confidence like that…you can’t ask them to shoot less and pass more,” said ESPN’s Michael Smith in reference to a post-game shirt that Westbrook wore revealing much of his chest. Westbrook avoided answering reporters’ questions about his former teammate Kevin Durant at the 2017 NBA All-Star weekend media day by talking about New York Fashion Week. In 2016 he sat alongside Kanye, Kim Kardashian, and Anna Wintour at Fashion Week. He spent time with Riccardo Tisci, the Creative Director for Givenchy, after the show. Over the years Westbrook’s style has evolved from colorful Prada shirts and lensless glasses that made him look like Family Matters lovable nerd Steve Urkel to elephant-print jackets and acid-washed coverall shorts. For the 2016-17 season opener Westbrook arrived at the arena in a kilt. Unlike the majority of athletes who simply dress to make fashion statements on social media, Westbrook is building his own mini empire. The Russell Westbrook XO brand is sold at high-end retailer Barneys New York. XO includes clothing, luggage, and jewelry. He launched a line of special eyewear without lenses which can be purchased at He is also the face of True Religion Jeans and Nike’s Brand Jordan collection. Ironically, he replaced Dwayne Wade as the Jordan pitchman.

ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard once insinuated that it would be great if Russell Westbrook was gay. His comment was made following a comical discussion about one of his outfits. While Le Batard did not mean to demean Westbrook, athletes like him and Dwayne Wade who make these daring fashion statements often find their sexuality under scrutiny. I found an online article titled “Wade’s Eight Most Questionable Fashion Choices.” The author’s comments in the article are coded with homophobic language. NBA Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O’Neil began singing Boy George’s “Karma Chameleon” on TNT’s Inside the NBA primetime series as a clip of Wade walking into the arena in his capri pants appeared. Boy George was a popular gay singer in the 1980s. When Wade and LeBron were playing for Miami one person tweeted “The Miami Heat are a gay basketball team!!” Another Twitter post said this obsession with high-end fashion is “a sign of more effeminate things to come from the NBA and so called MEN of today.” Heteronormativity is a major problem in professional sports. Odell Beckham Jr., the New York Giants’ star wide receiver who is famous for his bleached blond Mohawk haircuts and eccentric behavior, constantly has his sexuality questioned by opponents and folks on social media. Openly gay black athletes, Jason Collins and Michael Sam, failed to last more than a full season in the NBA and NFL, respectively.

In his article, “Scared Straight: Hip-Hop, Outing, and the Pedagogy of Queerness,” Morehouse College professor Marc Lamont Hill argues that a heterosexual black man’s career can be ruined if he is perceived to be gay. To be labeled a “punk” is the ultimate diss in hip-hop circles. “No homo” has become a popular term in hip-hop slang, used by males to qualify that they are not gay.
Brooklyn emcee Big Daddy Kane was one of the first hip-hop artists in the early 1990s to distance himself from the hyper-macho image in hip-hop by making songs for female audiences. His reputation took a major hit when he was falsely rumored to be gay. Surprisingly, in recent years rappers and hip-hop stars have become comfortable wearing outfits that would have been considered effeminate a decade ago. Atlanta rapper Young Thug wears women’s skinny jeans and Gucci dresses. Washington, DC rapper Wale admitted to wearing women’s sneakers by Chanel during an April 2017 interview with The Breakfast Club Power 105.1. Superstar producer Pharrell Williams recently became the first man to model Chanel handbags in a marketing campaign.
Just like hip-hop influenced athletes’ fashion choices 20 years ago, this is still true today. Wade and Westbrook are both happily married heterosexual men with children. They are among the toughest and most respected guys in professional sports. With the exception of a few ignorant people on social media, their dress code has not hurt their popularity (see NBA jersey sales), bank accounts, or made them any less macho in the eyes of female fans.

I Am a Man
Cam Newton’s Coachella romper created a quite a stir, but it was not surprising to see him wear that outfit given his personality. This is a young man who pushes his upper body up exposing an invisible Superman S on his chest after he scores. He did the Dab after he scored touchdowns. (Dabbing is a hip-hop dance move popularized by Atlanta rap group Migos in which a person drops their head into the bent crook of a slanted arm, while raising the opposite arm straight out in a parallel direction.) Although Cam had white kids Dabbing across the nation, many older, mostly white media members were offended by his bravado. “You will never last in the NFL with that attitude. The world doesn’t revolve around you, boy!” This quote by Bill Romanowski speaks to what Cam meant when he told reporters during Super Bowl LI week that he was treated differently because he is a black quarterback. Donna Murch, a writer for The Nation, describes this treatment as a burden of history. Cam and other black athletes still must prove that they are men and not boys or niggers. “Black male bodies have always been utilized in patriarchal and racist contexts for profit. And as a black man who possesses his body, on and off the field, Cam takes up a lot of space, literally and figuratively,” writes Rboylorn for the Crunk Feminist Collective.

I chose to begin and end this article with Cam Newton because he symbolizes the evolution of this correlation between fashion and black masculinity in professional sports since Jack Johnson was knocking out great white hopes. Cam’s executive suits represent the respectability that was so important to Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan. His ostentatious attire harkens back to Clyde Frazier, Mike Tyson, and Deion Sanders. He plays and dresses with the rebellious attitude of Allen Iverson. And he challenges gender norms in the same manner as Dwayne Wade and Russell Westbrook. In closing, black men are making revolutionary statements with their fashion on and off the playing field that ultimately define who they are in the world’s eyes.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.