Monday, November 9, 2009

Are cornrows truly that subversive to athletic ideals? Or is it just hair?

All too often, I read and hear rhetoric from people who claim our society would be better off if we emphasized our so-called commonalities instead of our individuality – particularly when it comes to racial or ethnic differences among us.

Of course, what that usually means is that the person in question views themselves as the ideal, and thinks everybody else ought to conform to their way of thinking.

I SEE THAT as being part of the problem with an incident last month at a Rush Street nightclub where college kids from St. Louis were denied admission because the club’s officials did not approve of their attire (which might have been hip-hop inspired, but is often seen these days on youth of all races).

It also is, in my opinion, at the heart of an incident at a junior high school in Portage, Ind. A 13-year-old boy (who is black) wants to play basketball for the Willowbrook Middle School team, and has the ability to do so.

But The Times of Northwest Indiana (a newspaper based in nearby Munster) reported recently that he has been threatened with being cut from the team because of his hair.

The coach in question is one of those who has a dress code governing the appearance of his athletes. And one of the rules is that the athletes cannot wear their hair in braids.

IN THIS PARTICULAR case, the 13-year-old wears his hair in that style seen among some African-American people known as cornrows. His parents told the newspaper that they consider such a hairstyle to be a cultural issue. They say the boy’s grandfather and great-grandfather wore their hair in similar ways.

Hence, the boy does not plan to change his hair. His parents support his decision.

Now before those of you who are ideologically inclined to believe that black people usually make too much out of such incidents start sending me messages telling me of the importance of a coach instilling discipline among his athletes – even down to such small details as appearance – let me say I agree with you.

I can understand the idea of teaching young athletes that a neat appearance shows that one takes care of oneself. That is an appropriate lesson, particularly when dealing with kids as young as the ones on this team.

BUT I CAN’T help but think this particular coach has his cultural ideals too far in the past. I suspect his rule about “no braids” was set out of an idea that only girls would want to wear their hair in braids. It certainly isn’t from any realistic idea of not permitting sloppy hairstyles on his ballplayers.

For my own opinion of men who wear their hair in cornrows is that it must take a lot of time and effort to maintain that particular hairstyle.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this particular boy spends more time caring for his hair and keeping it neatly braided and clean than any of his other would-be teammates.

So the idea that this boy is somehow violating a dress and appearance coded by being sloppy in his appearance is nothing more than absurd.

IT IS MORE due to a coach who imposed these rules when he got the job at the middle school three years ago. He justifies them by saying he has had the same dress and appearance code in place everywhere else he has coached for the past 22 years.

It strikes me as a coach whose idea of appearance is Anglo in nature, even though it doesn’t prevent him from having black athletes (like most coaches he wants to win, so he wants the best ballplayers regardless of race) on his team. But his tolerance only goes so far as their willingness to comply with his Anglo-inspired image of an athlete.

So where do we go from here?

Willowcreek’s workouts are expected to start seriously this week, and school officials say they support their coach. Meanwhile, the boy’s parents have retained an attorney.

HE’S NOT THREATENING a lawsuit. Not yet, anyway. But he has told reporter-types that the school’s conduct is disrespectful of the boy’s heritage and culture.

So this situation has the potential to become incredibly ugly unless calmer heads prevail.

But whenever we as a society start making judgments about people based primarily on appearance, it means that calmer heads are being deliberately ignored.

It is what happened at Original Mother’s in Chicago (which at least issued an apology to the college kids in question) and it is happening again at Willowcreek. It likely will happen again very soon, possibly in your neighborhood. That is why it is wrong for people to want to downplay such incidents as somehow being freak occurrences. They’re really all too typical.

THAT, I’M AFRAID, brings to my mind an expression I haven’t used since my own junior high days some three decades ago, but one that seems all too appropriate to describe these incidents today.

“It reeks.”


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