Content warning – This post includes a video and links to external content that contain offensive language.
As we approach the end of the college basketball season, I want to deviate just a bit from assessment and accountability and take a look back at the 2007 NCAA women’s tournament and the Imus Incident – that is, the comments made by radio host Don Imus about the women on the Rutgers University basketball team the morning following the national championship game between Rutgers and Tennessee and the national uproar that followed.
I was ready to share these thoughts in 2007, but a little voice inside my head (and a couple of other voices at the dinner table) urged me to take a step back and count to ten. So, I decided to count to ten – 10 years. I naively thought that in ten years the country will have moved well beyond a place where nationally syndicated radio hosts would be making offhand racist comments. Even more naively, I thought that in ten years we would be beyond the time when the media, journalists, and the rest of us would remain so focused on those comments that we would singularly incapable of looking beyond them to examine the underlying issues being raised. I was wrong on both counts.
Still, ten years have passed and I have no reason (other than blind faith) to expect that the situation will be much improved in another ten years.
As I hope will become clear, the purpose of this post is not to defend in any way the comments made by Don Imus, to address the reaction to those comments or whether he should have been fired. Rather, my purpose is to address two points:
- The very real issue that Imus raised with his comments that was all but ignored in the ensuing madness.
- The story that would have defined the women of the 2007 Rutgers basketball team had Imus not made his comments.
The Incident – A recap
The video below from MSNBC (which at the time simulcast the Imus in the Morning radio show) contains the original incident and a subsequent discussion of it by Don Imus.
In the week following the national championship game, this story generated a level of media frenzy that we now associate with the New England Patriots letting air out of a football or a Donald Trump tweet. There were daily news stories, protests, numerous apologies, and a meeting between Imus and the Rutgers basketball team that almost took the life of the New Jersey governor. Within ten days, Imus was fired by CBS and the Imus in the Morning radio show which had been a staple of morning radio (and later television) for decades was no more. [Imus and the show did return to the air on a different station and network eight months later, but neither ever regained their prominence or relevance.]
In the years that followed, there have been scholarly articles, doctoral dissertations, and even a book addressing various aspects of the incident. Many of those addressed issues of race, class, gender and sexuality in the United States, in sports, and in the media. Some addressed the handling of the incident by the media and media ethics. All of those are important topics that are worthy of scholarly discourse and national conversation.
Little attention was given, however, to the topic of the conversation on the Imus in the Morning show that morning – the relative appearance of the players (i.e., women) on the Rutgers and Tennessee basketball teams.
Rightly or wrongly, appearance matters. That was the case in 2007, and although more people now may think that it should not matter, that is still the case in 2017. And there are few organizations to which appearance (and appearances) matters more than the NCAA. Anyone who attends D1 NCAA sporting events is familiar with not only the tight control the NCAA exerts over the appearance and actions of players on the court, field, or ice (including the mandatory post-game handshakes), but also with their slickly-produced videos promoting the NCAA’s clean-cut product and brand that are shown on an almost continuous loop throughout the game.
Lest one think that the issue applies only to the appearance of women athletes, this appears to be one area in which the NCAA is gender blind. Coincidentally, at the same time that the Imus incident was unfolding, HBO was airing a new documentary, The UCLA Dynasty, about legendary basketball coach John Wooden. The documentary featured an interview in which Bill Walton, arguably one of the best college basketball players of all-time, relates a story about rushing to get a haircut so that he would be allowed to practice. Appearance mattered.
The lack of discussion about the substance of Imus’ content (i.e., the relative appearance of the two teams) and whether that should matter is even more surprising in the context of the times. In 2007, we were less than two full seasons into the dress code era of the NBA – a policy with its own set of racial and cultural overtones. Appearance and its impact on people’s perceptions was also not a new topic. During Imus’ very brief comments, he referenced the 1988 Spike Lee movie addressing the same topic of appearances (although his colleague did name the wrong movie). If necessary, we can go all the way back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes –
“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man…”
That advice is followed, of course, by “this above all: to thine ownself be true,…” Now, Polonius may not be the best role model for a parent, but both pieces of advice are sound. I have given the same advice to my own daughter – to thine ownself be true, but remember that appearance matters.
Another piece of advice that I give to her is that the people who are out front making the outlandish and obviously inappropriate comments are often not the people you really need to worry about. That brings us to the second, and to my mind, most important aspect of the Imus Incident ….
The NCAA’s Dirty Little Secret
Although the uproar that followed took on a much broader context, there is no question that the primary victims of Imus’ comments were the women of the Rutgers basketball team. As, Essence Carson, team captain expressed eloquently, in the following excerpts from her statement on behalf of the team…
Not only has Mr. Imus stolen a moment of pure grace from us but he has brought us to the harsh reality that behind the faces of the networks that have worked so hard to convey a message of empowerment to young adults that somehow some way the door has been left open to attack your leaders of tomorrow.
You must not forget that we are students first and then we’re athletes. And before the student lies the daughter.
We the team are full of youthful bright-eyed athletes that aspire to be great, not only great on the basketball court, but great in the fields of medicine, music and psychology.
Similar sentiments can be found in the joint statement issued by the NCAA and Rutgers University
The NCAA and Rutgers University are offended by the insults on MSNBCs Don Imus program toward the 10 young women on the Rutgers basketball team. It is unconscionable that anyone would use the airways to utter such disregard for the dignity of human beings who have accomplished much and deserve great credit.
“Before you are valedictorians of their class, musical prodigies, future doctors and yes, even Girl Scouts,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer told a news conference Tuesday morning.
She called her team members “young ladies of class, distinction. They are brilliant, they are articulate, they are God’s representatives in every sense of the word.”
Those statements by the NCAA, Rutgers, and Coach Stringer following Imus’ comments leave a wonderful impression of the women on the team. In reality, however, those statements came about a week too late.
As Paul Harvey might have said, now the rest of the story …
Regardless of the magnitude of a sporting event, networks and announcers seek a good story to tell. In the coach-centered world of the NCAA, those stories often revolve around the coach. For the 2007 Rutgers women’s basketball team, the compelling story was how one of most accomplished coaches in the sport was frustrated, exasperated, pushed beyond her limits, and forced to take extreme actions to get this group of young women to respond.
Contrast the statements above with the following description of the team from the New York Times
After a sputtering start, the Scarlet Knights lost access to their locker room, to their university issued practice gear and, apparently, to any chance of winning a national title. C. Vivian Stringer, an operatically frustrated coach, even took away her players’ laundry privileges for a month and refused to wear the team colors after Rutgers opened the season 24, struggling to score and failing to meet Stringer’s rigorous standards on defense…
Long forgotten was the exasperation of November and December, when Stringer threw her team out of its locker room, forcing players to dress in the hallways and bathrooms of the Louis Brown Athletic Center. Players were left to do their own laundry and to use practice gear and sneakers from high school or A.A.U. teams.
That description paints a very different picture of the young women of Rutgers – and it did not come from Don Imus. No, that description of the team was hidden in plain sight within the New York Times and other newspapers following the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four games. That was the description that fans watching the tournament on television heard. In short, it was the official narrative of the 2007 Rutgers basketball team – no doubt sanctioned by the NCAA and university.
Like many fans of women’s college basketball, my first real exposure to the 2007 Rutgers team came a week before the championship game, watching the telecast of the Sweet 16 round of the tournament. Rutgers faced Duke in Greensboro, North Carolina, essentially home game for Duke. Duke, the top-ranked team in the country, was one year removed from a heartbreaking overtime loss to Maryland in the championship game. The Sweet 16 game was a rematch of Rutgers’ home opener in December which Duke won by 40 points – leading to the actions described above. At the end of this day, however, Rutgers came away with a 1-point victory, with Time magazine designating this game as one of the top 10 sports matches of 2007.
Despite their upset against Duke and their wins in the next two rounds, my lasting impression of the women on the Rutgers team had little to do with their accomplishments on the court. It certainly had nothing to do with thinking of them “valedictorians of their class, musical prodigies, future doctors.” Nobody had told that story. No, based on the story that I had been told (which included even more details than those contained in the newspaper account), my impression was of a group of un-coachable athletes, who without the drastic, last-ditch actions of a great coach and leader would still be floundering as they were in November and December. At best, the image is of a group of 17-year old spoiled brats – lazy, entitled kids who have had everything handed to them since they were identified as athletes in the 3rd or 4th grade. At worst, you can conjure a host of stereotypes associated with these young women being forced to wear old clothes, do their own laundry, and dress in the hallways – for a month.
The official narrative did not contain any of the racist, sexist slurs uttered by Don Imus. In the long run, however, I wonder if that type of narrative is more damaging and insidious than the offhand remark by a radio shock jock that can be easily dismissed. We can eradicate particular words and phrases. We can, and probably should, focus more on substance than superficial appearance. At some point, however, we need to move beyond where we were in 2007. I don’t think that we are there yet.