With Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder making a serious run for the title this year, interestingly talk has once again turned to his stylistic choices. With debate shows like Around the Horn and First Take, not too mention various content starved sports writers, pining for anything to debate, much has been made about Durant’s clothing choices. Watching Durant, along with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade at live post-game press conferences has become the NBA’s version of the red carpet. Part shock and awe, part celebration of the players’ purported back turning on hip-hop styles, and part curiosity, no piece of clothing has been left unremarked upon, making me wonder if Joan Rivers has a future on ESPN.
Noting how players wear “gingham and plaid and velvet, bow ties and sweater vests, suspenders, and thick black glasses they don't need,” Wesley Morris celebrates their stylistic stances against racial stereotypes. It ain’t just an outfit, it’s an effort to stomp out racial bigotry: “Their colors conflict. Their patterns clash. Clothes that once stood as an open invitation to bullies looking for something to hang on the back of a bathroom door are what James now wears to rap alongside Lil Wayne. Clothes that once signified whiteness, squareness, suburbanness, sissyness, in the minds of some NBA players no longer do.”
Similarly, Sean Gregory identifies his clothing choices as a window into his broader appeal and demeanor: “In Durant, African-Americans are blessed with an ideal front man: a seemingly humble superstar” evidence by his “refusal to play the part of ego-driven hoops celeb” as well as clearly his propensity to wear glasses rather than chains, a backpack rather than headphones, and sweater in lie a hoodie. If you didn’t know that plaid and mismatched colors was a sign of humility and a lack of ego, now you know.
Commenting about the popularity of non-prescription glasses from NBA stars, Dave Hyde furthered the links between “nerds” and the sort of “style” embraced by several NBA stars: “That's just it. No one's sure what the statement these frameless glasses are other than, well, Urkel-R-Us. . . . .But wear the non-glass glasses? You don't need to understand fashion to recognize a nerdy idea when it hits you right between the eyes.”
The efforts to celebrate “nerd style” are wrapped up in larger questions of identity. For several commentators, it is punctuates an expanded definition of Blackness (in the tradition of Touré’s post-Blackness theories) available in contemporary America. Under this logic our changing world allows for Allen Iverson and Kevin Durant, Kanye West and Little Wayne, Brittney Griner and Nicki Manaj, Michelle Obama and Cory Booker to exist under a larger umbrella of blackness. According to Touré, “I see [Black irony] in NBA star Kevin Durant’s penchant for nerd chic, wearing glasses and a schoolboy backpack and thereby taking the air out of the Black male imperative to be masculine, tough, and cool.”
While oversimplifying Black identity, and reducing blackness to aesthetics, styles, and cultural practices and erasing the longstanding diversity within the black community, the celebration of “nerd chic” or “Black irony” actually reinforces stereotypes. What is note-worthy, what is worth celebrating, what is worthy of commentary is that Durant, Westbrook, James, and Wade aren’t acting like “Black men” within contemporary society. What is unusual is they are “dressing” like someone else, someone who they in actuality are not. Clothing change – check; stereotypes continue – check.
Wesley Morris makes this clear when he equates the nerd movement within the NBA to cross-dressing: “The cardigans and black frames, the backpacks and everything else: It's all as overdetermined as what happens on Project Runway with Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and with the drag queens. ‘Nerd’ is a kind of drag in which ballers are liberated to pretend to be someone else.” While clearly talking about athletes “acting” like nerds, as if athletic is the opposite of smart and intellectual, this reflects the overall idea that the “nerd look” allows these Black athletes to become White and therefore transcend the stereotype of young Black males. This does little to transform the stereotype but instead leaves them unscathed as ties and cardigans remain as symbols of “goodness” and “whiteness” whereas hoodies and beanies continue as markers of “criminality,” “danger,” and “Blackness.”
The importance of clothing and discussions of American racism were fully evident yet again this week. Responding to the release of security footage of Trayvon Martin at 7-11 on the night of his murder, Gerald Rivera identified his “thug attire” as the reason why he was profiled and ultimately killed by George Zimmerman: “I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.” In other words, had Martin worn Durant’s backpack, Wade’s glasses or Amar'e Stoudemire’s tie/cardigan combination (interestingly many of the players at the forefront of “nerd chic” also participated in hoodie protests within the NBA), he would be alive today? Beyond it simplicity and offensiveness, it highlights how no matter “nerdy” James or Durant dresses, their Blackness and its meaning in society will always matter.