In an absolutely mind bending turn of events, Don Imus is now a man without a job. A week after calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” the man once hailed by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people in the country, is officially off the air. The final ax fell as CBS announced that they could no longer withstand the heat from both inside and outside their company. As CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said, “There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society.”
“Discussion” is an awfully antiseptic word for what went down. Make no mistake: CBS’s Moonves and the bigwigs at MSNBC, who Wednesday pulled the plug on Imus’s TV show, were met with an upsurge inside their own ranks. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times, “Powerful statements were made during in-house meetings by women at NBC and MSNBC–about how black women are devalued in this country, how they are demeaned by white men and black men. White and black women spoke emotionally about the way black women are frequently trashed in the popular culture, especially in music, and about the way news outlets give far more attention to stories about white women in trouble. Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC News who oversaw the Imus show for MSNBC, told me yesterday, ‘It touched a huge nerve.'”
As the days went on, the anti-Imus tide gave expression across the country to a pent-up rage people feel about the way this kind of bigotry continually goes unchallenged. Hurricane Katrina destroyed a majority black city, which continues to wither from neglect, and not a word is said. Women face a constant barrage of sexism in our “Girls Gone Wild” culture but if you challenge it, you’re a humorless prig. Imus calls Arabs and Muslims “ragheads” and still had the John Kerrys, Tim Russerts, and Harold Fords as regular guests. This was a classic case of the tipping point, when people just said enough is enough.
But why did this comment, in a career of ugly statements, finally break the camel’s back? I would argue the answer partly lies in how we are taught to understand sports. Remember that Rush Limbaugh felt the biggest backlash of his career when he said that the media over hyped Philadelphia Eagles football star Donovan McNabb because of their “social concern” to see a successful African American quarterback. After thousands of angry calls and emails Rush was bounced from ESPN. Both Imus and Rush built careers on this kind of bile but when they cross-pollinated their bigotry with sports, a new level of anger exploded. We are relentlessly sold the idea that our games are safe space from this kind of political swill. We are also told that sports are a “field of dreams,” a true meritocracy where hard work always meets rewards. But when the playing field is shown to be unlevel, it stings. This sporting reality can wake people up and reveal the hidden inequities in our society that otherwise go unnoticed. When a Rutgers team defies the odds and makes the NCAA finals, and gets called “nappy headed hos” for their trouble, it presses a very all-too-raw nerve.
But Imus is also without a job because Rutgers Coach Vivian Stringer and her team, unlike many of Imus’s victims, refused to be silent. As captain Essence Carson said, “We’re happy — we’re glad to finally have the opportunity to stand up for what we know is right… We can speak up for women, not just African-American women, but all women.”
Coach Stringer took it even further in her comments last night to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.
She said, “We’ve become so desensitized that we’ve allowed a lot of things to pass, and we’ve not been happy… Too often politicians, leaders, and religious leaders speak for us, and we sit back and don’t realize the power in numbers, and when to say enough is enough….We see [injustice] all the time. A kid that steals something with a plastic cap pistol, and spends 10 years in jail, and yet you see, the white-collar workers, you know, thieves that steal millions of dollars [get off]. And I do think that if people stood up, politicians [wouldn’t] wait for a poll but [would be] strong enough to make a decision and stand…You know I happen to be the daughter of a coal miner. My father lost both his legs in a mine. He worked hard each and every day. He only stayed out of the mine six months until he got prosthetics. I know what it is to work hard and this has been a lifelong pursuit and passion. I’ve coached for 36 years…as a person of conscience, I have seen so much that I would like to see changed, with everything. I would gladly exchange winning a national championship if we, as young ladies, would stand and allow the country to somehow be empowered and that we take back our country…”
If you want to understand why Imus is out of work, read Coach Stringer’s words again. The fact is that so many of us are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We are sick of the casual racism. We are tired of the smirking, drive-by sexism. We are done with people who make their living by selling the idea that some people are less human than others. We are fed up with the politics of division and hate. We are the majority in this country, but are often entirely without voice. This past week, our voices were heard. It won’t–it can’t–end with Don Imus.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” , forthcoming from Haymarket. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org