Sport has always had an uncomfortable stance on jewelery – especially when worn by Black athletes | Life and style

lewis Hamilton’s glinted piercings and gleaming earrings are as much a part of his look as his afro-natural hairstyles and sharp tailoring. The 37-year-old’s habit of wearing jewelery in competition has never been an issue in his 15 previous F1 seasons, seven of them ending in world championships.

But at last week’s Australian Grand Prix, rookie race director Niels Wittich made clear that he would be enforcing a longstanding regulation banning drivers from wearing any material under their livery that isn’t fireproof. In his Melbourne pre-race notes Wittich expressly prohibited “the wearing of jewelery in the form of body piercings or metal neck chains” while allowing drivers a few races’ grace period to comply. After that, they risked a fine or reprimand.

While technically indexed as Appendix L in the FIA’s international sporting code, odds are this statute will be remembered by a different name: the Hamilton rule.

Flashing his trademark earrings and nose stud for the pre-race news conference, Hamilton, F1’s only Black driver, hit back. “I don’t plan on removing [them], he said of his piercings, some of which, he suggested, are not so obvious and semi-permanent. “I feel like there are personal things. You should be able to be who you are.” After finishing fourth, he was even more emphatic. “They’ll be staying,” he said.

Few sportsmen make fashion statements quite like Hamilton. The record-breaking driver not only turned up to last fall’s Met gala in a Kenneth Nicholson-tailored suit (matched to a lace white button-down with a train that extended to his left foot), he also paid more than $275,000 for one of the event’s exclusive tables – which are typically bought up by the leading fashion houses – to make sure Nicholson and other emerging Black designers were in attendance at fashion’s biggest event.

So as much as Wittich’s interest in prosecuting Appendix L might appear sincere in a sport where fires really do break out when accidents happen, it’s hard not to see this initiative as yet another instance of sports organizations policing Black bodies.

On that score, no sports league has been quite as zealous as the NBA – which, in the past four decades alone, has banned jewellery, du-rags, personalized Band-Aids, and headbands while becoming the first major professional sports league to impose a dress code for players when they’re arriving at and leaving matches or sitting on the bench. That last measure was intended to curb hip-hop culture’s encroachment on the game; what it actually did was turn NBA players into clothes horses and transform their path from the arena car park to the locker room into a catwalk.

The ultra-conservative NFL has no prohibitions on jewellery, but the league does restrict “hard objects”. Still, that didn’t stop the LA Rams’ Odell Beckham – another Met gala perennial – from courting controversy for wearing a $190,000 Richard Mille timepiece during a 2019 game. Nor did it spare the Oakland Raiders’ Michael Crabtree from embarrassment when Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib snatched a gold chain off the wide receiver’s neck during a terse exchange.

Major League Baseball is OK with jewelery on the field too, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game. But that air of permissiveness probably has less to do with any enlightened thinking inside the commissioner’s office than a bellicose players’ union that skews overwhelmingly white. Since the glare from Seattle Mariners reliever Arthur Rhodes’ earrings threw off the Cleveland Indians hitter Omar Vizquel and resulted in a bench-clearing brawl more than a decade ago, jewelery hasn’t really come into play much on the baseball diamond. And when accidents do happen, and a player is left fumbling around the infield on all fours to recover bits of a broken chain, well, non-baseball purists tend to laugh it off.

In high school track and field, however, jewelery bans have been a point of contention – even though one would be hard pressed to imagine Usain Bolt, Athing Mu or Michael Johnson without conjuring images of their gold chains flapping in the breeze.

After decades of incidents of high school competitors being disqualified for everything from bling chains to those yellow rubber Livestrong bracelets, the National Federation of State High School Associations abandoned its jewelery ban in 2014. Evidently, the final straw dropped when a high school sprinter in Eugene , Oregon, named Spencer Schmidt was initially disqualified from a state meet for wearing a frayed Nike wristband to treat patellar tendonitis. (Schmidt, who went on to win state after his DQ was overturned, wound up running for the Oregon Ducks.)

The consternation around jewelery in sports seems an offshoot of the historical polarization of Black hair, which has been tied to stereotypes and biases that have restricted Black people’s social mobility. And while Congress’s recent passing of the Crown Act is an attempt to address some of the problem, Hamilton, through his defiance, shows just how out of touch institutions still are.

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