American talk shows have been buzzing for the past several weeks about a seemingly trivial issue: NBA Commissioner David Stern's announcement that professional basketball players would heretofore be subject to a "business casual" dress code when appearing in public, including jacket, slacks, and "appropriate" shoes – or face stiff fines.
On the face of it, Stern's decision seems like little more than an internal league matter, like a dress code for any private business (for many years, I.B.M. were required not only to wear conservative business suits, but even to maintain a standard width between their shoes and pant cuffs).
But the NBA is a different story: 80 percent of the players are black. Its audience, and especially its heavy sponsors from amongst the world's largest companies (including almost every owner), are white.
Immediately, the charge was leveled: Critics called it a "racist decree" that forces black players to adopt social codes they don't identify with or accept.
And why did the issue make the headlines? Because the NBA is one of the most influential cultural institutions in the United States, and the world, today.
If your child wears a nose ring, pants that look three sizes too big, plaits his hair and listens to rap music – they all stem from the culture proffered by NBA players.
For years, the United States has been engaged in a struggle for its cultural and religious identity. The white majority is shrinking and feels threatened by minorities that do not necessarily share traditional American modes and customs.
NBA players such as Allen Iverson – with a criminal past, tattooed from head to toe, gold necklaces, "corn cob" braids on his head, have more influence on white kids from rich neighborhoods in New York than the kids’ parents, and the parents are less than thrilled about it.
Is Stern correct, that representatives of a 3 billion dollar a year business should dress "business-like" when appearing in public?
Or are the players right in their claim that the NBA's strength stems from the individualism of its players?
Without accusing Stern of racism – it is clear that white America is subject today to a cultural onslaught, and will kick back any way it can. Stern is no racist. The discussion about dress codes is racial in nature.
And just imagine: The league commissioner himself, no young man, happily takes part in the debate. In public interviews, Stern has refused to hide behind cliches such as "no one can accuse me of being a racist," and refused to attack his opponents.
He expressed satisfaction at the fact that this important debate was being conducted in his league. It shows we are connected to the issues that concern American society, he said.
Instead of lashing out, as would just about every single public figure in Israel, Stern chose to play on his opponent's home court.
And that, far more than the success or wealth of the NBA, is the real reason to be jealous: Social tensions are not swept under the carpet, but are rather dealt with openly and seriously by athletes and political commentators alike.
Such it is that a man being attacked from all sides, and accused of everything under the sun, chooses not to block discussion, but rather enhances that debate.