Fashion on the Field: Dress Code Double-Standards

Athletes use fashion to make a mark off the field, but receptions vary on race

If you follow professional sports close enough, you might be familiar with some of the most popular uniforms in the game: the Houston Astros’ retro rainbow jerseys, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ creamsicle jerseys or the Toronto Raptors’ “dino” jerseys. While they make lasting impressions on fans and appear in the wardrobes of frat boys everywhere (myself included), they are still uniforms. On the court or on the field, the likes of professional athletes find their style suppressed. Even more measures are taken to prohibit them from wearing accessories like custom-painted cleats or “Supreme” brand compression sleeves. Nevertheless, these athletes find ways to express themselves, but it’s a phenomenon that has led to mixed responses and a clear disparity in the way we treat them.

The NBA is arguably the “Mecca” when it comes to style and professional sports, as athletes commonly arrive at games and are met by media who capture their trek through arenas and into locker rooms. Some athletes arrive in everyday garb -— see Tim Duncan, who wore some combination of jeans, jorts, sneakers, sandals and an oversized button-down shirt in most of his outfit iterations. But many players today use this trek as a pseudo-runway to flaunt their own style.

Few stand out more than Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, who possesses a style bolder than perhaps anyone else in pro sports. So much so that ESPN spent all of the 2017 to 2018 NBA season documenting every outfit he wore. He has led a charge that created a bridge between industries, as he appeared during New York Fashion Week 2022 donning lace-up leather boots, an off-white cardigan and an ankle-length kilt for a Thom Browne Spring show.

Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma was seen in a similar capacity during New York Fashion Week this fall. Kuzma graced the runway for the athletic brand Puma, the same company with whom he holds a shoe sponsorship deal. In videos that can be found online, Kuzma can be seen in a mashup of heavily insulated puffer jackets, sewn together and worn below the waist, evocative in some ways of the tentacles of an octopus.

Kuzma’s equally distinct showings have brought him some criticism, namely when he arrived for a game in an oversized pink sweater that had sleeves nearly reaching the floor. The image circulated on Twitter, with many mocking the young player for the outfit. While everyone is free to and will offer their own opinions on players’ wardrobes, the incident serves as a segue into the larger issues that arise relating to these outfits.

Kuzma, a Black athlete, was mocked for his admittedly excessive choices. In the not-too-distant past, the same occurred when NFL quarterback Cam Newton, another Black athlete, rotated through colorful blazers, fedoras, bandanas and more upon arrival to stadiums and post-game press conferences. But, as they commonly are, different standards are made for white athletes. This can be seen by juxtaposing Cam Newton with Joe Burrow, specifically the reception of Joe Burrow’s outfits during the 2022 NFL playoffs. The young white quarterback was praised for outfits which included a black turtleneck sweater, sherpa jacket and accessories including a jewel-encrusted Nike “swoosh” chain and Cartier glasses as well as a full black-and-white tiger-striped suit. The images circulated the web with the nicknames “Joe Brrr” and “Joe Sheisty” as he was celebrated widely.

Newton, on the other hand, had his outfits deemed distractions by the media and faced much displeasure from fans. Even though players’ personal style has no impact on the game whatsoever, it became a talking point for some national media. It’s a clear and obvious double standard and a component unrelated to the game that highlights disparity in the treatment of Black and white athletes on a larger scale.

The unfortunate reality is that in almost all scenarios, athletes are going to be viewed as athletes first and foremost — just look at LeBron James being told to shut up and dribble after voicing his opinion on politics. However, adopting this outlook makes it that much easier to recognize the disparities that exist in the treatment of Black versus white athletes, even on matters as trivial as what one might wear to a competition.