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Air Force Academy haircut email stirs controversy over Michael Jordan reference

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - February 16, 2018 - Updated: February 16, 2018

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In this Oct. 11, 2015, file photo, NBA basketball legend Michael Jordan waves during the match of Charlotte Hornets against the Los Angeles Clippers at the 2015 NBA Global Games in Shenzhen, south China’s Guangdong province. China’s highest court ruled Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in favor of Jordan at the conclusion of a years-long trademark case. The former NBA star has been in dispute with a sportswear company based in southern China called Qiaodan Sports since 2012. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

An email sent to Air Force Academy cadets went off the rails this week when a sergeant went from discussing appropriate grooming to a statement that basketball star Michael Jordan “was never seen with a gaudy chain around his neck.”

The school has since apologized for the Wednesday “microaggressions” and said “the commandant is working with her staff to ensure that dignity and respect are upheld at every level in the cadet wing.”

The incident started when Master Sgt. Zachary Parish sent an email to cadets complaining about haircuts that didn’t comply with Air Force regulations. As the top enlisted airman over the cadet wing, Parish said he wants cadets to keep their hair trimmed.

“It’s unfortunate that a small percentage of cadets who fail to maintain their hair appropriately cast a negative impression that’s reflected on the entire … cadet population and armed service members at large,” Parish wrote in an email that later hit Facebook and was confirmed as authentic by the academy.

Enlisted leaders across the military are the enforcers of shaving and haircuts, so Parish’s admonition was a common one.

But then came his treatise on Michael Jordan.

“He was never seen with a gaudy chain around his neck, his pants below his waistline, or with a backwards baseball hat on during public appearances,” Parish wrote.

This sparked outrage among some recipients of the message who saw the sergeant’s words as a swipe at African-Americans.

A stinging rebuke was quickly issued in an email sent by Col. Julian Stevens, vice-commandant of cadets at the academy.

“Let me apologize for the email sent earlier today by our first sergeant,” Stevens wrote. “The comments were very disrespectful, derogatory and in no way reflective of (cadet wing) permanent party views.”

What Stevens wrote next has sparked a backlash of its own.

“Microagressions such as these are often blindspots/unintentional biases that are not often recognized, and if they are recognized they are not always addressed,” Stevens wrote.

The emails wound up on Facebook in a group aimed at Air Force sergeants, who immediately expressed outrage with the colonel for alleged oversensitivity.

“This is a perfect example of why we’re going to lose a war with Russia/China,” one commenter, among hundreds, wrote.

The sergeant, while well-defended on Facebook, is taking the heat at the academy.

“The comments were inappropriate,” the academy said in an email. “We have a responsibility for how we communicate and if anyone feels disrespected by someone’s words, we take that very seriously. We need to take responsibility immediately and learn from it as we move forward.”

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette