Here’s the backstory: Evander Kane wore a tracksuit to a team meeting. Team policy is to wear a suit. Teammate Dustin Byfuglien took said tracksuit and threw it in to the shower. Evander Kane left practice. Social media loves the drama.
I think many of us who have participated in team sports have probably been taught the same lesson: you dress up on game day. I had to do it for high school basketball games. To this day, I still have no idea why I had to dress up on game days. I mean I get it…but I don’t get it. Personally, I think as athletes who perform their “job” in athletic wear it seems somewhat incongruous to dress up on the way to the stadium. Shouldn’t you be in active wear ready to warm up? I certainly understand that there is a professionalism argument here: you are here to do a job/represent your school, so look the part! And, I agree that maybe putting on a suit creates a performative aspect that makes game day mentally different from practice day. But let’s face it, most of these guys are in their early 20’s and they get paid to chase, throw, hit an object for an obscene amount of money. They aren’t accountants. They aren’t lawyers. Also, aren’t teams missing out additional advertising space by NOT having teams arrive to the stadium and airport in team logo’d swag? Are women’s teams expected to dress up before games? (Perhaps if there was more coverage of women’s sports I would know the answer to this). What is the real logic other than – that’s how we do.
Perhaps, the outrage over Kane’s attire speaks very well to authority and tradition in sport. If the coach tells you to wear a garbage bag and beret to the stadium you wear it because coach said so. Simple as that. And tradition, well tradition doesn’t need to make sense – it’s tradition! But I think what we have to acknowledge is that the “professionalism” that we speak of regarding attire carries a lot of baggage regarding race and class. “White-collar” may refer to the colour of shirt but it reproduces a system in which White men have been allowed to define what “professionalism” looks like and entails. While Don Cherry is not necessarily where this conversation begins, he has certainly made himself abundantly clear about how hockey players should dress and that (conservative) rhetoric has carried through the years under the auspices of respect and tradition:
The definition of a thug: a brutal ruffian or assassin. The origin of the word is from Hindi and Urdu meaning thief. As Cherry states “Look, two thugs. Gonna break into your car every time.” This, from the man who’s apparel has become both the joke and the punchline for hockey fans. This, from the man who not too long ago wore a white suit with goal lights all over it. Funny thing is, these Tampa Bay “thugs” were wearing suits (+toque/knit cap). I can only guess what Cherry will say on tonight’s Coach’s Corner about Kane’s tracksuit. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but at the same time: clothes make the man. In his one minute rant, Cherry equates fashion with playing ability and morality. First class teams dress like professionals, and the last place team dresses like an underclass. He doesn’t say they dress like losers, although that is implied in the four letter word: thug. People who steal and kill have no morals. People who rob and steal have no respect for authority. Consequently, those who dress like “thugs” must also have no respect for the game, their fans, or their coach. How you dress = How you act.
During the 2010/2011 season Cherry praised Sidney Crosby saying “Look at him kids, dress like him. Don’t dress all slovenly. You see basketball players walking in they look like thugs, same thing as baseball and the whole bunch. We got class!” Comparing the white as ice sport of hockey to the black overrepresented sport of basketball and Dominican dominated (I exaggerate some for alliteration) sport of baseball elucidates very well what Cherry means when he says “We got class!” (which, is also excellent grammar for those who are keeping score). That “class” he speaks of refers to a Protestant work ethic of sacrifice, frugality, and dedication that contrasts religions, such as Catholicism, that revere things such as ceremony. Hockey drips with Protestant work ethic because that’s where its history lies, with Anglo-Saxon/Celtic players. Therefore, “we” references the puritan way of approaching life and leisure and we can see this ideology continues in the public sentiment:
There wouldn’t be so much outrage over a tracksuit if clothing was not imbued with so much social meaning. It’s not just a tracksuit. And Cherry is right (sort of) by connecting fashion with behaviour. This is not to say that there is a causal link but there is certainly a symbolic connection. Now let’s call a spade a spade: the word “thug” comes with strong racial connotations in contemporary discourse. In the book Thug Life: Race, gender and the meaning of hip-hop, author Michael Jeffries writes:
Thugs learn that laws are not applied to them as they are to others, so living “outside the manna of the gods,” the hip-hop thug makes his own moral and political laws, borrowing from both acceptable (love-driven and hopeful) and despicable (violent, exploitative, and nihilistic) models of the universe.
While the politics of respectability argues that being poor and black does not make someone a criminal, thug discourse thumbs its nose at the establishment and plainly says, “If simply being me, born poor and black in the ghetto, is criminal and wrong, I don’t want to be right.” (p.88)
If there are two things that do not mix (or at least have not yet mixed very well) it’s hockey and hip-hop culture. Hockey is white white white and hip-hop is black black black. In hockey culture, the rules apply to you (unless we’re talking about fighting – hah!). There is a strict code of rank and behaviour. Now, some people have made the argument that because Byfuglien threw Kane’s tracksuit into the shower it takes the race issue off the table, but it’s not that simple. I might argue that because Byfuglien did it, it makes it more about race; it may come from a place of, “don’t drag the few other black NHL players into the hip-hop/”bad black” stereotype with you.” Therefore, in a sense, Byfuglien “whitens” himself in an attempt to distance himself from the harmful stereotype. As Brian Wilson argues in his article about representations of “good blacks” and “bad blacks” in sport, those who might be labelled “good blacks” “enact a racially neutered identity, a Black version of a White cultural model” (p.181). The representation of the “good black” demonstrates that blacks have the “ability” to be “just like whites” making it seem as though “bad blacks” have simply made the wrong choices in life. As Vice Sports, wrote on the issue, “Kane now finds himself in the middle of a metaphoric struggle between the league’s desire to draw in more fans on the back of star personalities, and the game’s staunch traditionalist element – one that would label Kane’s deviation from the prescribed and bland brand of Gretzky-an politeness as an act of treason.”
The suit was created as a British counter argument to exorbitant luxury and ever changing fashions that only the elite could afford. Specifically, the three-piece suit was meant to reflect “thrift, modesty, economy, mixed with gentility, nobility, and politeness” (Kuchta, 2002, p.79), in other words, that Gretzky-an politeness. Maybe Kane was thumbing his nose at team authority, or maybe he really did make a mistake and didn’t have time to change before the meeting, but doesn’t the team dress code seem archaic and somewhat hypocritical when once the suits come off what is revealed is a that game that endorses multi-million dollar contracts, fisticuffs, cursing, and vigilante justice? Hardly modest or gentile, it would seem.
UPDATE: Don Cherry’s response to the Evander Kane drama: “you should be ashamed of yourself…either be a jerk or be a hockey player.” (as if those two things are mutually exclusive)
Jeffries, M.P. (2011). Thug Life: Race, gender, and the meaning of hip-hop. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Kuchta, D. (2002). The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England 1550-1850. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Wilson, B. (1997). “Good Blacks” and “Bad Blacks”: Media constructions of African-American athletes in Canadian basketball. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 32(2), 177-189.