Two decades ago, when I went from a middle-class public high school to a fancy East Coast private college, I noticed an irony. The jumbo egos that now surrounded me were less conspicuous than the garden-variety egos I’d previously dwelt among. In my new cultural milieu, it was considered bad form to note that you’d made a good grade, or to engage in any other obvious form of self-advertisement. Adjusting to this new environment, I soon began to affect a fairly convincing air of humility. (Sounds like an impressively deft adaptation, I know, but–really–it was nothing.)
The basic principle here is that the higher the socioeconomic class, the less conspicuous the self-promotion. “Less conspicuous” doesn’t mean “less chronic,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “less effective.” On the contrary. What my college classmates knew is that, as a rule, less overt self-promotion is more effective. Having an obviously high opinion of yourself threatens and alarms both peers and superiors, often to your ultimate detriment. All of which, I contend, explains how ill-suited the ethos of inner-city teen-agers is to economic advancement, and how big shoe companies such as Nike, Reebok, and Converse make the problem worse.
College basketball coach Al McGuire once said that, whereas many coaches took white players and tried to get them to play black, he took black players and tried to get them to play white. He was alluding to a rarely spoken but widely known truth: There are two cultural styles of basketball, which we can conveniently label with the familiar code words “inner city” and “suburban.” In inner-city playgrounds, basketball is more conspicuously egotistical. There is less passing to set up the open shot, more driving to the hoop and other forms of mano a mano confrontation. More showboating, more trash talking. Vividly humiliating the man guarding you is highly prized.
One can argue about whether this style of basketball reflects only the general tendency of lower-income people to self-advertise conspicuously, as described above, or reflects also the unique historical travails of American blacks. (The latter, I’d say.) One can even argue about whether the inner-city or the suburban style of play is better basketball. But one cannot argue about which ethos is more conducive to advancement in the wider world. Like it or not, the mainstream American economy is culturally suburban.
Try this thought experiment. Two job candidates sit before you. One is an 18-year-old version of Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman. There are no visual cues to bias you–no tattoos, no purple hair, no pantyhose. Just Rodman’s in-your-face attitude, complete with a sensibility that perceives roughly all human behavior as a sign of disrespect. (Recall his recent kicking of a photographer for sitting courtside, where photographers always sit.) The other candidate is an 18-year-old version of Hakeem Olajuwon, the great Houston Rockets center who, though black, is a stereotypically “suburban” player–selfless and humble, yet exuding quiet self-assurance on the court and off. (Obviously, “inner-city” and “suburban” are ultimately cultural, not racial, categories. Olajuwon twice won NBA championships with all-black starting fives that had a suburban playing style. By contrast, Larry Bird, a white player of low-income origins, was a noted trash talker.)
OK, faced with the young Rodman and the young Olajuwon, whom do you hire? Correct: Olajuwon. Ergo, who would be a better role model for poor black kids? Correct: Olajuwon. Now, which of the two has a big shoe-endorsement contract? Correct: Rodman (with Converse).
A side from athletic talent, nothing is more helpful in getting you a big shoe contract than being an asshole. There are exceptions, yes, such as Detroit Piston Grant Hill, who wears Fila shoes. But the good-guy shoe icons are vastly outnumbered by the likes of the Seattle Supersonics’of Gary Payton (Nike) and Shawn Kemp (Reebok), Chicago’s Scottie Pippen (Nike), and Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson (Reebok). Iverson has done jail time and is famous for employing his talent in awe-inspiring ways that do his team little good. And humility is not his specialty. When he won the Rookie of the Year Award this month, he said: “I thought the award should go to the person who had the biggest impact. I know we only won 22 games [out of 82] but if you look at impact players as a rookie, I thought I had the greatest impact.” Reebok, enchanted by Iverson’s charisma, has designed a new shoe in his honor.
Reebok is fast displacing Nike as the Darth Vader of the shoe world. Reebok sponsors, and thus elevates, Shaquille O’Neal, a huge mass of self-absorption whose teams, like Iverson’s, seldom fulfill expectations. O’Neal’s Lakers just got blown out of the playoffs by perhaps the most suburban (and ethnically whitest) team in the league, the Utah Jazz–whose black superstar, Karl Malone, is another good citizen and great player who gets dissed by the shoe companies. O’Neal, like Iverson, in the average job interview.
Obviously, it’s easy for me to complain about players who aren’t big on self-effacement or deference to authority. My ancestors weren’t slaves. I didn’t spend my teens being viewed by merchants and cops as a likely shoplifter. Maybe in that sense, the behavior of the Pippens and Iversons of the world is defensible. But when that behavior is in some small way helping to keep young blacks trapped in poverty, defending it is not the liberal thing to do. Certainly celebrating it isn’t. (And, beyond a point, defending it is patronizing.)
Nike CEO Phil Knight likes to pose as capitalism with a human face, a man devoted to social justice. Witness Knight’s ostentatious donation to the legal-defense fund of blue-collar skater/thug Tonya Harding. (Since Nike doesn’t make ice-skating equipment, that’s the closest Knight could come to subsidizing that sport’s biggest asshole.) Well, let’s see Knight truly put his money where his mouth is. Pick a great basketball role model, put him on a pedestal, and let the financial chips fall where they may. (No, Michael Jordan as a great role model.)
Abit of genuine morality at Nike (or Reebok or Converse) needn’t be vastly expensive. Surely Madison Avenue has enough brains to make a Hakeem ad–or a Clyde Drexler ad, or a Malone ad–that appeals to inner-city kids. Remember, I’m not asking for “Just Say No” ads or any other form of moralism. Those don’t work anyway. On the contrary, I’m asking for ads that make their stars look cool, thus boosting the prominence of athletes who, in their on-court conduct and post-game interviews, are good influences. And I’m asking that a shoe company’s elevation of someone like Iverson become a source of stigma among socially conscious shoe buyers. Let’s have a real boycott!
Which companies to boycott? A tough call, since no shoe company with a big-name hoops line is wholly without blame. For now, is that we start with Nike and Reebok and let Converse off with a stern warning, since Dennis Rodman is its first major offense. And remember: We’re boycotting not just hoops shoes, but running shoes, hiking boots, sweatpants, socks. The Nike and Reebok logos are now officially declared badges of shame. Of course, it will be hard, with those two companies dominating the shelf space of every Foot Locker, to sniff out Brooks, Saucony, Asics, Fila, or New Balance. But go ahead. Just do it.