Sunday, October 14, 2007

Don Imus Case Study

Case Study: Don Imus and the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team


On April 4, 2007, Don Imus, radio host of MSNBC’s “Imus in the Morning” show had a controversial conversation with Sports Talk’s Sid Rosenberg and the show’s executive producer Bernard McGuirk about the Women’s NCAA Championship game that took place the night before. The game was between Tennessee and Rutgers. During the discussion of the game, Imus referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which is comprised of eight African-American and two white players as, “some rough girls from Rutgers…they got tattoos,” and then went on to call them “some nappy-headed hos.” Imus dismissed the incident as "some idiot comment meant to be amusing." After initially suspending him, CBS and NBC, which broadcasts his show over MSNBC, later fired him altogether. The controversy continued and major advertisers began deserting the show. Even after apologies on air and appearances on several talk shows including Reverend Al Sharpton’s, Don Imus was fired by CBS. The controversial conversation went as follows:

DON IMUS: So, I watched the basketball game last night between -- a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women's final.
SID ROSENBERG: Yeah, Tennessee won last night -- seventh championship for [Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt, I-Man. They beat Rutgers by 13 points.
IMUS: That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and --
BERNARD McGUIRK: Some hard-core hos.
IMUS: That's some nappy-headed hos there. I'm gonna tell you that now, man, that's some -- woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like -- kinda like -- I don't know.
(“Imus Calls Rutgers' Women's Basketball Team 'Nappy-Headed 'Hos' | MSNBC Distances Itself”).
On Thursday night, Imus met with the team as well as its coach, C. Vivian Stringer to discuss the incident and extend his apologies. On Friday, Stringer held a press conference that was broadcast live on CNN, during which she said the team had accepted his apology. Rutgers then issued its own statement:
"We agree with Mr. Imus that this was, in his own words, an 'idiot comment.' We are very proud of the success of the Rutgers women's basketball team. Coach Stringer and the Rutgers players are outstanding ambassadors for this great institution."
Head coach, Vivian Stringer issued several comments in response to Imus’ statement in her press conference. She said, "We, the Rutgers University Scarlet Knight Basketball Team accept Mr. Imus's apology, and we are in the process of forgiving. We still find his statements to be unacceptable, and this is an experience that we will never forget. These comments are indicative of greater ills in our culture. It is not just Mr. Imus, and we hope that this will be and serve as a catalyst for change. Let us continue to work hard together to make this world a better place. As adults, we must lead. As parents we must guide. We must put children and morality above all else. And we must allow children to be children. The healing process must begin. As for the members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team, their focus needs to be turned to their studies. We ask that you respect that. We would also like to thank everyone for the tremendous outpouring of support throughout this very, very difficult time" (Stringer, “Coach: ‘Hos’ comment an insult to all women).
The complete summary has been highlighted on by Thunder Pussy Productions. The eight minute and thirty-four second production utilizes clips from the initial “nappy headed ho” conversation to apologies on air to the harsh interview from Reverend Al Sharpton.

Deciphering “racist” comments like the ones that Don Imus made in regards to the Rutgers University Women’s basketball team stems from the historical perspective of what race is. According to Ian F. Haney Lopez in his Harvard Civil Rights-Liberties Law Review, people have used race with biological meaning, a social meaning, or a legal construction.
Biological construction of race reflects the idea that physical divisions among humans exist because of our heredity. Under this interpretation, race is defined by one’s ancestors and epidermis to determine a racial group. One scholar who strongly believed in this view was Judge Tucker.
The argument now most popular among scholars is that there is no biological existence of race. This argument began because there are no genetic characteristics possessed by all Blacks or all Whites. The genetic variation within race groups exists, which negates the idea that race is a biological construction. Scientists actually compiled enough data to reveal that there is a greater genetic variation within populations labeled as Black or White than between these populations.
Social construction of race is defined as “a vast group of people loosely bound together by historically contingent, socially significant elements of their morphology and/or ancestry.” Social meanings essentially connect our faces to our souls.
The legal construction of race is based on laws of what is black, what is white, what is nonwhite. Also specific acts, such as the Genocide Convention Implementation Act (Lopez)

The prevalence of racism in our society today extends from the evolution of the concept of race. Only with this social construction did history create one of the most controversial issues that has been a problem for hundreds of years.
• Evolution of and perceptions of race
o Race is a modern idea because ancient societies did not divide people by physical differences, but by religion, class, status, and language
o Race and Freedom were born together, and the concept of race helped explain why some people were denied rights and freedoms
o Social ideas have influenced research and discoveries related to race
 Ideas change over time, reflecting politics
• Late 18th century:
o Science helps rationalize social inequalities
o Justify discriminatory policies and laws
 Whites have benefited from exclusionary laws and policies
 Diverse populations were barred from citizenship, denied opportunities, and restricted from many aspects in American society
 Nonwhites never accepted the inferiority to whites and fought for inclusion, fair treatment, and equal rights.

• Race Timeline
o Before 1787
 1300 – Origin of the word “slave”
 1680 – White appears in colonial laws
 1705 – Virginia slave codes passed
 1765 – Slaves lobby for freedom in American Revolution
 1776 – Birth of “Caucasion” and freedom creates contradiction
 1781 – Jefferson suggests Black inferiority
o 1790-1854
 1790 – Race categories on first census
 1810 – Indians take on racial idea
 1825 – “Blood” degree measures who is Indian
 1839 – Skulls measure to prove racial hierarchy
 1845 – Manifest Destiny/war with Mexico
 1854 – Nonwhites barred from testifying
 1854 – Frederick Douglass challenges race scientists
o 1857-1904
 1857 – African Americans denied citizenship
 1868 – 14th Amendment guarantees equal rights
 1887 – Jim Crow segregation begins
 1898 – Birthright citizenship established
o 1905-1935
 1905 – African Americans demand equal rights
 1922 – Courts decide who is white
 1924 – Changing definitions of who is Black
o 1950-2000
 1954 – Legal segregation ends
 1977 – Government defines race/ethnic categories
 1994 – Black-white wealth gap
 2000 – Census allows more than one race
(“RACE-The Power of an Illusion”).

• Categories of Race
Following are the U.S. federal government's current definitions for some racial and ethnic groups. Most of these categories were introduced in 1977, in response to new civil rights laws.
American Indian or Alaskan Native
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community recognition.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Black or African American
A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can be used in addition to "Black or African American."
Hispanic or Latino
A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture of origin, regardless of race. The term "Spanish origin" can be used in addition to "Hispanic or Latino."
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa

• Racist Speech
The word “nappy” began as the adjective of the word “nap.” Nap is a fuzzy surface layer on yarn or cloth. Nap is teased up or raised higher by brushing the cloth against a rough surface. Late in the 18th century or early in the 19th century, Americans in the southern U.S. began to refer to negro slaves as nappy heads.
Then, as happened in history with many terms of abuse, those abused, the black slaves, took to using the word among themselves with affection, partly as a method of ‘taking back the hurt’ in the insult and partly out of the sheer exuberant play of language that all people share. There are 19th century letters from black mothers to distant daughters where the mother addresses her girl as “my sweet little nappy head.” What white racists don’t seem to get is the black imprimatur of such language. That usage is permissible among blacks, but when whites say it, it’s racist (Casselman).
In Randall Kennedy’s journal of black’s in higher education, he writes a piece entitled “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’…And Other Consideration.” It discusses what is rarely discussed, which is when it is okay to say “nigger” and who can say it. He said that we all must recognize the cultural impact behind the word because the usage could leave one vulnerable to “the loss of one’s equilibrium, one’s reputation, one’s job, even one’s life.”
Historically, nigger was derived from the Northern English word “neger,” which was essentially derived from “negro,” the Spanish word for black. No one knows exactly when the word became abusive and derogatory, but linguist Robin Lakoff speculated that the term nigger became a slur when users became aware that it was a mispronunciation of “negro.” The mispronunciation was said to be recognized as a sign of contempt. This mispronunciation is dated back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. He goes on to argue that the term in itself would be perfectly harmless if it were used only to distinguish one society class from another. However, that is not the intent.
Since at least the nineteenth century and perhaps even earlier, nigger has served as a way of referring derogatorily and often menacingly to blacks. Elaborating, Judge Stephen Reinhardt asserted that “the word nigger as applied to blacks is uniquely provocative and demeaning and that there is probably no word or phrase that could be directed at any other group that could cause comparable injury” (Kennedy 86).
Black writer Clarence Major, who discussed nigger in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang published in 1970. “When used by a white person in addressing a black person,” he noted, “nigger is usually offensive and disparaging.” Major quickly added, however, that when “used by black people among themselves, nigger is a racial term with undertones of warmth and good will – reflecting…a tragicomic sensibility that is aware of black history” (Kennedy 89).

Case Study
• BBC World Service: World Conference Against Racism
o This conference was held in South Africa in 2001 as a way of bringing racism into the open and to potentially create a proactive plan to combat racism. It demonstrated how divided international opinion can be.
 The first world conference to combat racism and racial discrimination was held in Geneva in 1978.
 Historians estimate between 10 and 28 million Africans were shipped overseas during the Slave Trade.
o Resulted in a total of 160 states agreeing with the declaration in which the final text read, “Slavery and the slave trade are crimes against humanity…”

The Rutgers women’s basketball team, along with society as a whole, has become inadvertently aware of the pressing issue of racism and sexism in this country because of Imus’ derogatory comments. Therefore many challenges and opportunities are presented.
- Create an atmosphere that encourages open discussions and debates about racism, sexism, and other “taboo” subjects
- Motivate women and diverse populations to take a stand and lead the efforts to stop derogatory comments and images in the media and entertainment business.
- Initiate promotions for women’s athletics
- Receive positive publicity and attention from the media
-Ban the terms “bitch” and “ho” from airwaves and rapper vocabulary

Groups of different ages, races and sex responded with talk shows, discussion groups, news articles, and much more. The Imus incident created a buzz to influence society to address issues that have been neglected or failed to be addressed. Because of the recognition in the public eye, Imus’ comments created a positive influence on many people, organizations, and society as a whole.
• Advertisers
Some of the sponsors who have helped make Imus a media icon believe that it's no longer worth being associated with him. The following advertisers who pulled ads from MSNBC and Imus’ “Imus in the Morning” show are:
- Procter & Gamble
- Staples
- General Motors
- GlaxoSmithKline
-, a unit of GMAC Financial Services
- And more…
Imus served as a catalyst for many advertisers to recognize the effects of degrading an audience, and in this particular case, the diverse populations. "If this continues to steamroll, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any client that would want to be near" Imus' image on radio or TV, says Rich Russo, an ad buyer at JL Media.
• Talk Shows
-The Today show
Imus responded to criticism by saying, "I know that that phrase “nappy-headed hos” didn't originate in the white community. That phrase originated in the black community. And I'm not stupid. I may be a white man, but I know that these young women and young black women all through that society are demeaned and disparaged and disrespected by their own black men and that they are called that name. And I know that, and that doesn't give me, obviously, any right to say it, but it doesn't give them any right to say it."
-The Oprah Show
Oprah assembled a panel of hip-hop professionals to respond. Russell Simmons; record executive Kevin Liles; Dr. Benjamin Chavis, former CEO of the NAACP and current President/CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Network; and Grammy-winning rapper Common continue the discussion and get the hip-hop community's response. Dr. Benjamin Chavis was once CEO of the NAACP and is now the CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Network, which he co-founded with Russell Simmons. He emphasizes that although Imus’ “awful comments” presented an opportunity to discuss these avoided issues, Imus is not off the hook. "Hip-hop artists are not responsible for what Don Imus did. Don Imus was a racist. Don Imus was a sexist, and there's no way that Don Imus can blame hip-hop for what he did," Dr. Chavis says. "That is not to excuse hip-hop. Hip hop is not perfect. We've got to make it better. But we make hip-hop better by making society better, because hip-hop reflects the contradictions of society. There's too much poverty, there's too much injustice, and there's too much bad treatment of women in our society."

• Music Industry
Imus’ slur brought a revival of the struggle to stand against violent rap lyrics. This sparked the first noticeable action since C. Delores Tucker, a political and social activist, instituted a national campaign against obscenities in rap music in the 90s. Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons called for the voluntary banning of "bitch," "ho" and the “N-word” as "extreme curse words." He called for industry executives to "recommend guidelines for lyrical and visual standards." His call for the removal of rap insults came as a response to "public outrage," Simmons said. "It's the potential for us to head off a nasty discussion that promotes censorship."
• Magazines
-Diane Weathers, former editor in chief of Essence magazine, says women must take the lead in the fight against misogynistic images of women in hip-hop. "You cannot go to the industry, people in the industry, and expect them to fix this," Diane says. "Women have to say, 'No.'"
-Michael Eric Dyson, Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania wrote an opinion article in the July 2007 Essence issue. He said, “Because most Black women are socially unprotected, there is hardly any penalty for insulting them” (Dyson, 120).
-James Poniewozik, “The Imus Fallout: Who Can Say What?”
- His piece recognizes how offensive Imus’ comment was, but emphasizes the additional celebrity slurs about diverse populations. He provides several examples simply from the past year. Michael Richards and “nigger,” Isiah Washington and “faggot,” Senator George Allen and “macaca,” Mel Gibson and “f___ing Jews.” He also discusses how our culture is one in which racially and sexually edgy material is often considered art and comical. For example, the comedy, Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen who played a Kazakh journalist refers to Alan Keyes as a “genuine chocolate face” and asks a gun-shop owner to suggest a good piece for killing a Jew. The Sarah Silverman Program also include racy comments including an episode in which the star sleeps with God, who is African American and who she assumes is “God’s black friend.” In a now classic episode of Chappelle’s Show, comic Dave Chappelle plays a blind, black white supremacist who in advertantly calls a carload of rap-listening boys “niggers.” The kids’ reaction: “Did he just call us niggers? Awesome!”
- In the middle of Imus’ apology and rationalization for his comment, he did ask a good question: “This phrase that I use, it originated in the black community. That didn’t give me a right to use it, but that’s where it originated. Who calls who that and why? We need to know that. I need to know that.”

• Activist Groups
Race and sex are both issues for several groups of people. A group of women at Atlanta’s Spelman College are frustrated by the use of words like "ho" in hip-hop. "I feel that, as with the Don Imus situation, there's a lack of accountability. As rappers, I feel that accountability should be taken into consideration—as well as with Don Imus—from a racial standpoint. Rappers from a sexist standpoint," Keli, a student at the school, says. "It all needs to be addressed and we need to quit talking around the issues."
All seven women on the Spelman panel say they have been called a “ho” and that the negative stereotypes in some hip-hop songs are being applied to all black women. "I've heard a lot of rappers say that they are speaking about the 'hos from the street' and the hos from their experience," says Leona, a student. "But they have to understand that men don't make distinctions between those hos and us. When we go to a club they don't say, 'Let me see your school ID' and distinguish whether they're going to call us a ‘ho’ or not."
I The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People initiated a stop to racist and sexist imagery in the media, aimed at the record and television industries, recording artists and the African American community.
-Feminist Majority Foundation
A hearing was held to discuss the impact of sexist, misogynistic and racist themes in the media, with an emphasis on Hip-Hop music and culture. Members were joined by corporate executives, Hip-Hop artists, and scholars specializing in the effects of discrimination in media on women.
(“Imus Incident Sparks House Hearing on Discrimination”).

In the News
The Imus incident received publicity all across the country. Countless articles were written in newspapers, blogs, online discussion, and more with topics ranging from actually describing the summary of events that took place to radical editorials and opinion pieces.
The New York Times op-ed columnist, Bob Herbert wrote an editorial titled, “Paying the Price.” The article included powerful statements that were made during in-house meetings by women at NBC and MSNBC. It went on to describe how black women are devalued in this country and demeaned by both white and black men. To summarize the piece, this hateful garbage has been going on for a long, long time, and at some point somebody has to say enough is enough (Herbert).
The Los Angeles Times quoted several prominent figures in the media and entertainment business on their opinions of the Imus issue. Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the ralk radio magazine Talkers took a different standpoint on the issue. He said, "This has nothing to do with Imus. 'Bitch' and 'ho' are so prevalent in music, radio, television and the movies these days that it's reached the point where white people think it's OK to say these things. It's like a game of musical chairs where they stopped playing the music and the spotlight happened to be on him" (AP).
USA Today’s Theresa Howard and Laura Petrecca wrote an article about Nike’s response to the incident and the article was called, “Media notes: Nike vs. Imus.” The article explained that Nike recently pitched for more promotion for women's sports. As Imus revealed the issue of sexism, Nike was prompted to question whether it is doing enough to promote women's sports. As a result, it developed an advertisement, black text on a white background, that was first printed on a full page in the New York Times on April 15. The ad was also placed, along with a "send-to-a-friend" button, for 48 hours on the following Web sites:,, a high school sports site named, community site,, and Utilizing online hit counters, the ad was viewed 12 million times (Howard and Petrecca).
The ad read: Thank you ignorance. Thank you for starting the conversation. Thank you for making an entire nation listen to the Rutgers team’s story. And for making us wonder what other great stories we’ve missed. Thank you for reminding us to think before we speak. Thank you for showing us how strong and poised 18- and 20-year-old girls can be. Thank you for reminding a sports nation that another basketball tournament goes on in March. Thank you for showing us that sport includes more than the time spent on the court. Thank you for unintentionally moving women’s sport forward. And thank you for making all of us realize that we still have a long way to go. Next season starts 11.16.07 (nike_ignorance.jpg).
The Rutgers community newspaper, The Daily Targum, emphasized the actions that took place, and how the University as a whole was reacting to the publicity. Steven Williamson wrote an article entitled, “Imus scandal puts U. in the spotlight.” To highlight his piece, he said, “Rutgers women's basketball head coach C. Vivian Stringer argued that the true story, the story of the 10 admirable women who displayed nothing but class through adversity, continued to go uncovered.” He concluded his article with thoughts such as, “Stringer condemned Imus' judgment, while simultaneously criticizing the path society had taken” (Williamson).
Don Imus could also find his name through several articles in Penn State University’s paper, The Daily Collegian. Kristin Colella wrote a piece in the opinions section on April 15, 2007 entitled, “Celebrities must be more aware of their impact on young girls.” Colella discusses how women are often misrepresented in the media and “exploited and eroticized in movies, music, television shows, radio programs, magazines, films and video games.” She goes on to say how women are underrepresented and need more of a proactive opinion in what the media does in portraying and discussing women. She uses the piece as a call for action for women but also for men to make a change. For a great deal of progress to be made, more women need to take on roles as producers, directors, editors and screenwriters. The questions needs to be asked whether or not the images of women that companies produce are objectifying and reinforce harmful stereotypes that women have fought so hard to overcome (Colella).

• Ward Connerly, American Civil Rights Institute chairman believes that Don Imus was treated unfairly and that the reaction to his comments were taken too far, and that many other public figures have made seemingly racist comments and have not been treated as badly as Imus (Connerly).

• Philippe P. Dauman, President and CEO of Viacom, the owner of MTV, BET and several other media outlets, said that parents are responsible and the consumer can avoid explicit content.

• Levell Crump, aka "David Banner," said his music, including the song "Like a Pimp," lets him express the frustrations of a difficult youth and gave him an outlet other than violence. When asked if he thought his misogynist and violent lyrics were having a negative impact on women, he replied "It’s still just a song," later adding, "I actually call my music the Bible with a 'Playboy' cover."

• Vanderbilt University professor and scholar in both feminist and black theory, Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting argued that explicit material only portrays the negatives of the culture and is being taken by many to represent the norm. This results in the misinterpretation of hip-hop and black culture, particularly among white listeners, who compromise perhaps as high as 70% of the industry’s consumers (“Imus Incident Sparks…).

Professional Opinions
• Rutgers Athletic Communications
o Stacey Brann, Primary media relations contact for the women’s basketball team
“Immediately after the incident, our focus was on our team. We wanted to make sure that the girls on our team understood the position of the University and of the Athletic Department that the comments made by Don Imus were reprehensible and disgusting, as were the comments of the show's producer. They abused the unique privilege they have of speaking to the country over the airways, and assassinated the character of 10 exceptionally talented and hard working young women.
We expressed to these outstanding women that we understood the depth of their hurt to the degree that we could and that they were unfairly characterized in a vile, despicable and racist manner. As an athletic department and university, we shared their anger and wanted to express fully our pride in them. They did absolutely nothing to deserve that treatment. We didn’t want the situation to tarnish the magnitude of the team's accomplishments.
You cannot erase the hurt, but you can have people change their ways. These are outstanding young women who represent their university in a magnificent and classy manner. They deserve the admiration of everyone. We are in the process of considering our options so that the country can see what this University stands for and the quality, strength and character of our women's basketball team. As for now, the team is hard at work in the hopes of another successful season, and considering the circumstances, the girls are doing well, and as always, representing themselves with poise.”

• Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
o Rhonda Weiss, the National Chair and CEO, issued a response to comments made by Imus, and she also offered perspective on how companies and public relations professionals should effectively react to crisis situations. She believes that any time a company faces a crisis resulting in an intense level of public backlash as well as national media scrutiny, there are three major parts to a crisis response:
 1) Quickly address the problem at hand to correct what is wrong and ensure prevention of future problems
 2) Determine how to repair damaged relationships with individuals who were directly impacted
 3) Communicate honestly and accurately through the media to address issues and concerns (Public Relations Society…)
• DPK Public Relations on Crises
o “A crisis is an unexpected and uncontrolled event or series of events that disrupt normal operations for a prolonged period and cause unwanted public scrutiny”
 Quickly assess situation and lay out options
 Your first concern should be the health and safety of anyone involved
 Express concern and sympathy
 If the case, emphasize that there will be a complete investigation and your organization will fully cooperate
 The greatest value of a crisis plan is planning (Crisis Management…)

My Opinion
An outburst of open public conversations and debates regarding racism and sexism resulted in Don Imus’ comments, which provided more positive than negative responses. Once the initial embarrassment and humility from the Rutgers women’s basketball team subsided, the black community continued and is still continuing to see positive responses regarding the issue. These topics have not been expressed freely in the past, and with all hopes, Don Imus sacrificed his career to better society. When his seemingly simple phrase attracted the attention of world-known Oprah Winfrey, I knew the issue would linger for a long time.
Even though the positive responses were overwhelming, I’m not sure I totally agree with firing Don Imus all together. While his statement was extremely inappropriate, he was not the first public figure to make racist or sexist comments on the air. I found myself agreeing with Ward Connerly about the issue. The fact remains that Imus will forever be notorious for his comment which brought about so much good for our society.
Also, a fact that has not been mentioned a lot in the press was the timing of his comment. If we think back, a week after he made his comment was the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Had the comment been made during the awful events, Imus might not have been in the spotlight. But regardless, it happened, and I think that issues regarding race and sex in the future will always have some reference to the comments Imus made.

Countless discussions, debates and public panels were initiated in response to the derogatory comments made by Don Imus. Also, an overwhelming amount of publicity was received. The publicity was positive for the black community and for women with criticisms, editorials, feature stories, talk shows, news blurbs, and more. Activist groups and individuals have created proactive campaigns for change within the society. While the issue of racism has not been conquered in society in a mere six months, it is a start.


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