Silence for Imus Misses the Point

The firing of Don Imus makes me cringe. Through all the talk of the shock-jock’s insult to Rutgers’ women’s basketball, the meaning of his words for women’s sports has somehow been woefully lost. The networks’ knee-jerk response—silencing Imus —fails miserably to deal with the question at hand: why are women’s sports still a joke?

Let’s be clear: Imus’s comments were plainly racist, sexist, and misogynistic. His words certainly touch a raw nerve in this (retired) female collegiate athlete. Imus’s derision was especially damaging because his “nappy-headed hos” comment reached a major network audience. The punch lies in the fact that he has a lot of power; the basketball team does not. It’s simply not fair.

But amid the discussions of racism, we’ve forgotten that Imus’s words also fundamentally question the legitimacy of female athleticism. Thirty-five years after the enactment of Title IX, which ordained that federally-funded athletic programs must give equal billing to women’s sports as to men’s, Imus’s “joke” reflects ever persistent cultural attitudes about women’s athletics.

It’s not about merely apologizing for making a bunch of college women cry. It’s about evaluating women athletes—at the top of their game, at the height of success—in purely misogynistic terms. Instead of commenting on the level of play, the highlights of the game, or the achievements of the players, Imus only assessed their physical appearance—and he did so using the most degrading of terms.

It didn’t matter that he had probably never met these women (though apparently the team met privately with Imus to discuss his comments). It didn’t matter that these women had worked tirelessly as both students and athletes to make it to this championship game. All that mattered was that they were women; and women, according to Don Imus and Bernard McGuirk, are ultimately just a joke on the basketball court.

Imus’s words hurt because they cut to the heart of what these women do, who they are, and what their accomplishments symbolize. Public outrage points more broadly to the scorn female athletes frequently receive from men and women alike for their “gross, big muscles” which make them “look butch and manly,” as one critic in college once remarked to me of my rowing teammates. Women athletes are still often evaluated by 19th century standards of femininity and fragility, rather than on the basis of their achievements on the playing field.

As a coxswain for Radcliffe Crew, one of the oldest women’s rowing programs in the country, I was proud of our history and appreciative of the work of the women who came before me; this year, women’s rowing celebrates its eleventh year as an official NCAA sport. And nationally, more women than ever before participate in sports at all levels and ages. Yet somehow, it’s still okay to laugh at the idea that women can be serious athletes.

Shutting down Imus is bad for women’s athletics, and it’s bad for free expression. Someone—however contemptible—lost his job because people would rather shut him up by firing him than by confronting what he said. But such suppression does little to address the underlying problem. Next time, that person might not be so easy to despise. If, 35 years after the enactment of Title IX, the validity of women’s athletics is still a question for some, and women athletes are still derided for their athleticism—then we’d better push for more speech, not less.

The national networks missed a chance to continue the conversation Imus started. Instead of silencing him, why not push him to talk more, and pointedly, about the issues his remarks have raised? Invite the Rutgers women’s basketball team into the CBS studio and make Imus and McGuirk confront the faces of the people they have offended on national TV. Press Imus’s two or three million daily listeners to think hard about why it’s funny to make misogynistic jokes about women athletes. And, as the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins has suggested, invite Imus to be a sponsor of Rutgers women’s basketball; give him a season pass to the games.

Let us confront the history of racism and sexism in this country and the multitude of ways in which women have had to fight to get equal opportunities to compete—for Yale’s first female rowers, this meant walking sweaty and chilled into the athletic director’s office and stripping off their shirts to reveal the words “Title IX” painted across their bare breasts, in order to demand equal funding for women’s rowing. I challenge the networks to help us face this history, one which thankfully is rarely so explicitly repeated in collegiate athletic departments today.

Two years ago, then-Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers’ remarks about women in science sparked heated controversy on campus and far beyond it. I disagreed with Summers, but I felt proud of the University’s concentrated efforts in response—more conversations, committees to study gender-based obstacles in the tenure track, and this fall, the opening of a campus women’s center. Then, and now, the best way to confront “bad”—offensive, painful, difficult, or unfavorable—speech is not by silencing it, but by responding with more speech.

Keep Imus talking. And get the fine women of the Rutgers basketball team on the airwaves right alongside him.

Rebecca L. Zeidel ’06 was a history concentrator in Dunster House and a coxswain for Radcliffe Heavyweight Women’s Crew for four years. She is currently a member of the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.