Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2014

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From street to discreet

As he left the Regional Justice Center last week, Adam "Pacman" Jones didn't seem entirely transformed.

The Tennessee Titan cocked his head high and proudly, almost defiantly, after pleading no contest to charges that he and two others were involved in a melee at a Las Vegas strip club in February.

He certainly didn't seem contrite.

Yet absent were his pugnaciousness and the look that bolsters the attitude: the baggy clothes, the flashy jewelry and even the trademark dreadlocks.

Jones' new haircut and threads were no coincidence: Athletes with legal troubles typically favor a more mainstream appearance to appease judges.

It's a look some argue is decidedly white and conservative - "Republican," one local attorney said.

"There are times when you want to seem like someone with serious street cred," said Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

But not in a courtroom.

"It's always about respect," said Robert Langford, the Las Vegas attorney who represents 24-year-old Jones. "You're trying to put your best foot forward, your best case. So, don't wear a T-shirt and shorts to court. I didn't tell Pacman any differently."

Of the three defendants, Jones was the cleanest cut on Dec. 6.

To the arraignment, Jones wore a subtle but crisp navy blue shirt with matching pants, both with thin stripes, and polished black shoes. His goatee remained, but it was neatly cropped - a sharp contrast to the appearance of his co-defendants, Robert Reid and Sadia Morrison.

Before their court appearances, defendants - especially celebrities - often are instructed to humble themselves before a judge, Thompson said.

"Any defense lawyer would tell you they clean them up before they bring their defendants into court," he said. "You don't want to do anything that might seem like you're baiting the judge."

It's unknown whether such a strategy makes a difference, but it is one preached by attorneys and image consultants.

"Of course, and not just to athletes. That's any client, including bankers, lawyers, doctors ... cowboys or hip-hop artists," Langford said.

Jones, Langford insisted, did not hire an image consultant.

"Pacman was not counseled," he said. "We didn't need image consultants ... We just said, 'Be sure to dress nice.'"

District Attorney David Roger doesn't examine how a defendant dresses. He suspects judges also are unaffected by attire.

"I think a judge looks at what a person has done, their criminal record ... before making a decision," he said.

Indeed, the crime - and the defendant's past - ultimately shapes, or should shape, the punishment. As journalist Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean noted before the National Football League suspended Jones in May for his myriad screw-ups: "Jones is the reason he'll be suspended by the NFL, not the media, not his dreadlocks, not the hangers-on."

Jones was instructed by Langford not to speak to reporters about his appearance or anything else.

The reformed look is typical - even expected - for disgraced athletes, said ESPN reporter Colleen Dominguez, "especially depending on the charges they're facing." Dominguez, who is based in Los Angeles, has been dispatched in recent months to cover athletes' court appearances across the West. She could be assigned to the O.J. Simpson trial, which is scheduled to begin at the justice center in early April.

"Especially with the younger guys, it's very common," Dominguez said. "For someone like O.J., obviously at 60, he's in a different generation."

At least in terms of appearance, Simpson has preferred classic or casual elegance - tailored suits or polos and slacks - when seen publicly, either in the courtroom or on the golf course.

In Langford's view, rapper Sean Combs - aka Puff Daddy, Puffy and P. Diddy - built an entire clothing line, Sean John, off the look he perfected in court. For Combs, pinstriped suits became the standard.

Although it's true all defendants tailor their ensembles for court appearances, young athletes of color seem to make the starkest change.

"The main systems of power are rooted in white culture," said Samuel Richards, co-director of Penn State University's Race Relations Project. "If you want to reduce the amount of overt or subconscious prejudice, you might as well ... assimilate yourself with the dominant culture. There's no better place to do that than inside the legal system."

Athletes of all races and classes get plenty of encouragement to mature before (and after) they get into legal trouble - from coaches, agents, public relations reps, even family members. But apparently, they don't always want it.

Many "are big children who have no sense of personal responsibility due to the fact that they have been catered to since high school and possibly even prior to that," Rainier Spencer, a director of UNLV's Afro-American Studies Program, wrote in an e-mail.

Young athletes often are implored to divorce their childhood settings and shake adolescent posses of hangers-on from as early as the collegiate level, and certainly on reaching the professional ranks.

"The issue of separating yourself from a harmful environment is a recurring theme in the life of black men," columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in The Washington Post.

Basketball star Dwyane Wade, who swapped Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods for the cover of GQ, seemed to do it with ease.

It's been harder for Jones, who has been arrested six times. Again, say the experts, it's an issue of maturity.

"If you think about sports, especially young men, there's that adolescent swagger," Richards said. "In high school, you're one of the boys. You go from high school to college, you're still one of the boys."

For many, that's also true in the pros.

"They're still thinking more toward the past than the future," Richards said.

That is, until their careers - and probably worse, their salaries - are jeopardized by the implications of their bravado and brazen behavior. Only then do they make an effort to grow up - or at least adopt that facade before a judge.

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