Fair play, airplay and Imus

David Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."

After a nine-month vacation, radio shock jock Don Imus will be back on the air in December. Perhaps you thought that Imus’ comments calling the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” would have rendered him untouchable -- that at best he would find a home in the outer banks of satellite radio?

But no. Instead, the man who seamlessly blended wonkish Beltway interviews with crude racist and sexist shock jockery will be returning to his old life, this time shaming the WABC airwaves in New York and, presumably, being syndicated across the country. Imus’ punishment in retrospect appears like a massage on the wrist: He received a $20-million settlement from CBS for cutting his contract short, he took a nine-month vacation, and now he’s returning to commercial radio.

Time certainly hasn’t healed all wounds. Deepa Kumar, a media studies professor at Rutgers, said to me recently: “Imus’ return to radio exposes in no uncertain terms how low the corporate media will sink to make a profit. For students and faculty at Rutgers who organized to get Imus fired from CBS Radio, this is a slap in the face.”


Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer says today, “I won’t kid you, I was and still am very angry.”

Already a terrific fiction has been laid out about why Imus lost his job in the first place. Some have said it was all the Machiavellian machinations of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Sportswriter Jason Whitlock, for instance, called them “domestic terrorists” for leading protests. Others have written that the uproar was strictly a function of political correctness. As Dick Cavett wrote in the New York Times: “How absolutely silly it looks from this distance. . .. Among the erstwhile Imus program’s virtues was that it provided a welcome relief from political correctness.”

In other words, we couldn’t take a joke. It’s certainly true that there is no shortage of shock jocks making millions by dumping on people because they’re the wrong color, gender or sexuality. This is big business built on the idea that some people are less human than others. But Imus hit a nerve when he applied this brand of “humor” to 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 out of their “social concern” to see a successful African American quarterback. After thousands of angry calls and e-mails, Limbaugh was bounced from a sports gig on ESPN. Both Imus and Limbaugh built empires on this kind of bombast, but when they cross-pollinated their bigotry with sports, a new level of anger erupted.

We are relentlessly sold the idea that our games -- our precious sports -- are a safe space from this kind of political abuse. Sports are a “field of dreams” where hard work always meets rewards. We treasure this idea. When the Rutgers basketball players defy the odds and make the NCAA finals -- and get called “nappy-headed hos” for their trouble -- it presses an all-too-raw nerve.

For women’s sports, this nerve is particularly raw. This is the 35th year of Coach Stringer’s career. This is also the 35th year of Title IX, the landmark 1972 legislation aimed at, among other things, leveling the playing field between men and women in sports, offering the promise of equal opportunity and equal access. It was a victory of the women’s and civil rights movements.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, one in three high school- and college-age women partake in sports today. Twenty-five years ago, that number was one in 27. That’s important, in part, because young women who play sports are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis, eating disorders or the darkness of depression. This law has improved the quality of life for tens of millions of women across the country.

But for women, sports remains a place of denigration, not celebration. Swimsuit issues, cheerleaders and beer-commercial sexism define women in the testosterone-addled sports world. Every woman who has played sports, and every man with a female athlete in the family, felt Imus’ words in a way that cut deeply. He woke a sleeping giant: those of us who value women’s contributions in the world of sport. When Imus targeted the Rutgers women’s basketball team for racist and sexist abuse, that sentiment crystallized. His continued unemployment could have served as a potent reminder of a moment when the young women of Rutgers stood up and said enough is enough.

But after a ludicrously short cooling-off period, Imus is back. It’s remarkable to see him come out a winner in all of this, but for Stringer -- despite all the turmoil -- there are no regrets. She says she valued the opportunity to raise the issue of the way drive-by sexism permeates the mainstream media.

“God knows that I would love to win the national championship, and I have been in pursuit of this all of my life,” Stringer said. “But, if I were given the choice -- do you wish to speak to the world and really have an effect or a change and make people feel better, or to win a national championship, if I have to choose between the two -- I would take what happened this year because far more people paid attention and far more people were really and truly affected than a basketball game could ever have been.”

Imus once again has the microphone. The question will be whether he learned anything in his nine months away, or if the trials of Stringer and her team were for naught. Or maybe Cavett is right and we should all just smile as he lets the hate fly.