April 10, 2007 -- The Rutgers women had their say today. They took the podium in their red sweat suits to address the news media. They should have been in class. Easter was ruined, one of them said. The ten players on the basketball team that almost won the national championship and then became the targets of Don Imus wanted the radio host to know they were angry. The women said Imus's comments were deplorable and insulting.
Imus had called them "nappy-headed hos." What woman wants to be called a ho, asked their coach, Vivian Stringer. You could hear the pride in Coach Stringer's voice, how dare anyone speak to her players like that.
The team said they have agreed to meet with Imus, who has offered to apologize to the players in person.
"We were insulted and yes we were angry. We did nothing to deserve Mr. Imus' deplorable comments," said Heather Zurich, a sophomore and forward.
"This has scarred me for life," Rutgers junior guard Matee Ajavon said, adding it would be something she would be talking about the rest of her life.
The Scarlett Knights won this year's Big East conference and made it to the championship game of the NCAA's tournament, losing to Tennessee.
The players appear to be witholding judgement on whether Imus should be fired, as some critics have demanded.
On the meeting with Imus, Ajavon said, "I could say that we honestly don't know what to expect from Don Imus." Ajavon added the team wants to know "...his reasons and how you could just say things that you have not put any thought to."
Calling Imus' comments "despicable words that were deeply hurtful," Rutgers President Richard McCormick said of the players today that his school and his state "had their backs."
In contrast to Imus' characterization of the team as "nappy-headed hos," coach Stringer called her players "the best the nation has to offer," and described them as "valedictorians, future doctors [and] musical prodigies."
"The story is not the despicable comments made by Imus and his producer, the real story is about these young women. The comments were reprehensible and offensive ... These young women are the very best and we are proud of the way they represent us," said Bob Mulkevey, the school's athletic director.
Imus, who has been suspended for two weeks by CBS Radio and MSNBC, which simulcasts his show on cable television, called the punishment appropriate today but stressed, "I am not a racist."
"What I did was make a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context," Imus said on his show yesterday, the final week before his suspension starts.
Asked by NBC's "Today" host Matt Lauer if he could clean up his act as he promised Monday, he said, "Well, perhaps I can't." But he added, "I have a history of keeping my word."
The radio host tried to shift some of the focus from himself. "That phrase originated in the black community ... I may be a white man, but I know that these young women and young black women all through that society are demeaned and degraded by their own black men and that they are called that name."
Imus said his staff had been trying to set up a meeting with the Rutgers players to apologize, but he said he didn't expect forgiveness. Of the two-week suspension, he said: "I think it's appropriate, and I am going to try to serve it with some dignity."
Imus took his effort to salvage his career into the camp of his most vocal critic Monday. Despite his overture, however, both NBC and CBS announced that they would suspend their broadcasts of the show temporarily.
Imus accepted the challenge to appear on the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio program, "The Al Sharpton Show," and announced that he was trying to meet with members of the Rutgers women's basketball team, the targets of his insulting comments.
Sharpton, who has called for Imus to be fired, was not satisfied and led a sharp exchange in which he pressed Imus to quit.
On his broadcast last Wednesday, Imus said of the Rutgers women's team, which had just played in the NCAA championship game, "That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that."
His on-air apology two days later has not quelled the controversy stirred by that remark. The Rev. Jesse Jackson led a group of protesters in front of NBC's offices in Chicago today, calling for Imus to be fired.
If that does not happen, Jackson said he would lead a boycott of all products that advertise on Imus' show.
On the NAACP Web site, chairman Julian Bond said of Imus, "It is past time his employers took him off the air."
NBC will indeed take him off the air -- at least for a while. The company announced today it would suspend its simulcast of Imus' show for two weeks, beginning Monday, April 16. The broadcaster doesn't employ Imus, but its cable outlet, MSNBC, simulcasts Imus' program along with more than 70 radio stations around the country.
CBS Radio, Imus' employer, followed suit. It announced, shortly after NBC, that it would suspend its broadcast of the show for two weeks beginning April 16. Earlier, the network called his comments "completely inappropriate" but had no further comment on its decision to take Imus off the air.
Should Imus Remain on the Air?
The fact that Imus is still on the air five days after his remarks surprises some media observers.
USA Today sports columnist and ABC News consultant Christine Brennan told "Good Morning America," "It's really stunning to me in 2007 that you can say these things about African-American women and keep your job."
But Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said Imus remaining on the air is no mystery. His 30-year-old "Imus in the Morning" program is a ratings leader at MSNBC and an important property for CBS Radio.
Said Thompson: "There's a whole calculus to this. When it happens, management takes a look at what he can deliver, what they expect he can deliver in the future and, if they fire him, who do they put in that time slot? How do they come anywhere close to delivering that same audience?"
Still, though Imus has weathered the storm so far, Matthew Felling, at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, believes his career is severely damaged. Given that Imus' show's popularity depends to some extent on regular appearances by newsmakers, including presidential contenders, Felling said, "Do the politicians keep playing on his playground? Do they have to respond to outside pressures and boycott his program?"
Felling believes his prominent guests will stay away now. "He can stay on and enjoy a slow bleed or just turn in his 'thanks for the ride, folks' paperwork." That slow bleed may already have begun. Late today, baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, who is promoting two books, canceled an appearance on the show, according to his publicist John Maroon. "In light of recent remarks made on the program, Cal will not appear on the show as part of his national book tour," Maroon said.
History Suggests Zero Tolerance
Imus' comment about the Rutgers players conjures up past sports-related racial gaffes that have ended the careers of those who uttered them. However, he has yet to suffer the fate history would suggest.
In 1987, Al Campanis -- then general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers -- appeared on ABC's "Nightline." When host Ted Koppel asked why there were so few black managers in baseball, Campanis' reply that blacks "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager" stirred controversy and protests that quickly cost him his job with the Dodgers.
Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder's career as a CBS Sports commentator ended in January 1988 when he told a Washington NBC TV station that blacks are better at sports than whites because they are "bred to be the better athlete." He said this started during slavery when "the slave owner would breed this big black with this big black woman so he could have a big black kid."
Though Snyder offered a "full, heartfelt apology to all I have offended," CBS fired him the next day.
Famed sportscaster Howard Cosell's career never recovered from a remark made during a "Monday Night Football" game in 1983 between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.
As Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett ran down the field, Cosell exclaimed, "Look at that little monkey run!" That Cosell had famously defended Muhammad Ali as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam was not enough to save him from the wrath of viewers who thought him racist. Two months later he was gone from ABC.
In October 2003, Rush Limbaugh had to resign his position as an ESPN commentator soon after he said that Donovan McNabb gets more favorable press attention than he should because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."
Looking back at this history, Thompson notes there used to be "zero tolerance for this sort of thing."
"Now we're in a period where the landscape has gotten so much more complicated," said Thompson. "You've got things like Chapelle's show, and South Park and hip-hop music lyrics where things that were simply not acceptable in any context whatsoever have begun to infiltrate the culture in some contexts where they are acceptable."
Factor in Imus' status as a shock jock whose job description, said Thompson, "is to occasionally do things that will almost but not quite get you fired," and you've got another reason why Imus may survive what Campanis, Snyder and Cosell could not.
Aside from the discomfiting changes in our culture that might allow Imus to survive this controversy, Matthew Felling said it raises a troubling and ominous question: What sorts of behavior go on at smaller-market radio stations that don't get this sort of exposure and this amount of criticism?
Additional reporting by Andrew Fies