The Damage He Did
The news media last week jumped all over the Don Imus story after the radio host called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that, by the end of the week, as the outrage level seemed to still be growing rather than abating – and after ad sponsors started pulling out of his show – CBS Radio and MSNBC had fired Imus.With the media overkill, you’d hardly know a war was going on in Iraq. NBC’s Today show alone interviewed Imus, Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer, player Essence Carson, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, James Carville (?!), various other talk show hosts, a pastor, a book author, professors, and an entire panel of average people battling out the issue. Most discussions focused on the racial aspect of Imus’ comment.
Largely ignored by media was the hostility that Imus’ breathtakingly asinine comment aimed at women. As one of the Rutgers players put it, society has become desensitized, largely by the hip-hop world, to women being referred to as “hos.” Rap fans rightly point out that not all rap artists use those terms, but there’s no doubt that too many of them do.
Degrading a group of college athletes with a euphemism for “whores” reflects a level of hatred against women that is difficult to accept. The fact some thought the remarks were funny or harmless shows misogyny is alive and well.
“To utter such despicable words is not right,” Stringer said in an April 10 press conference.
“What hurts the most about this situation is that Mr. Imus knows none of us personally,” player Heather Zurich said.
She and her teammates are real women, real college students. Besides Zurich and Carson, the roster includes Katie Adams, Matee Ajavon, Dee Dee Jernigan, Rashidat Junaid, Myia McCurdy, Epiphanny Prince, Judith Brittany Ray and Kia Vaughn. Their team, the Scarlet Knights, made it all the way to the NCAA basketball championship game. As athletes and university students, they are among our best and brightest.
The insults, also slung by Imus executive producer Bernard McGuirk, showed a lack of knowledge and a lack of respect. The team roster includes a high school valedictorian, an aspiring lawyer, and “a musical prodigy who plays classical compositions on the piano without sheet music,” according to the Associated Press. And, by the way, not all of them are black.
Player Ajavon said the experience “has scarred me for life.”
An element of society still rejects, ignores, or trivializes women who don’t fit an ideal image, stemming from the Victorian era, that demands women be passive, weak, and quiet. In the late 1800s, women were told that physical activity could hurt their reproductive organs. Over a century later, more girls than ever are playing soccer and other sports, Title IX ensures gender equality in public school and public university sports, but women’s sports still take a back seat to men’s.
On ESPN.com on Friday, an online poll showed a majority – 57 percent – of more than 148,000 votes were against Imus’ dismissal.Thanks to that lack of support and some ignorant hate e-mails sent to the team, Rutgers basketball players have even more reason to feel they’re second-class citizens.
Another sad twist to the story is that Imus and others on his show have made past racist and sexist comments, all attempts at “comedy.” Imus called well-known and well-honored journalist Gwen Ifill a “cleaning lady” while she covered the White House for The New York Times. (He later denied he said it.)
Ifill wrote about the “cleaning lady” remark in an April 10 Times column and emphasized the need to support successful young women like the Rutgers players.
“This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field,” she wrote.
There is no place in society for the disdainful comments Imus made. I can’t fathom why anyone would think they were funny.
Tracy Everbach, a journalism professor at the University of North Texas, can be reached at TracyEverbach@hotmail.com.