What Imus Really Said

I'm watching MSNBC on Friday morning. The menu on my screen still reads "Imus in the Morning," but obviously that's going to have to change.

Bye man, I-man.

I'm watching MSNBC on Friday morning and listening to news personality David Gregory lead a "new debate," as the graphic called it, about racism in America. He's speaking with Tom Brokaw, who is saying all of the sage-like things that need to be said for a network that's now in a 72-hour cycle of contrition.

When these racial firecrackers explode, the reactions from the parties involved and their corporate masters go one of two ways, but MSNBC and Imus have done a little bit of both. They might go with the "if you could only see into my heart" routine, in which they claim to be a good person who made a bad mistake and begin trotting out every single minority friend or co-worker they've ever known to defend them publicly. (Michael Richards must have been seriously ticked off that "Seinfeld" was so lilywhite; that show made "Friends" look like "Sanford and Son.")

Or their corporate masters will pull the "if we had only seen the signs earlier" card, which is what Brokaw was doing on Friday morning. If only we had understood what it was that Don Imus was saying and doing and mocking; if only Imus had understood it, as well.

Of course, Imus never understood it. Unlike rival Howard Stern — whose radio show this week was a non-stop, frequently brilliant critique of the whole affair — Imus never really differentiated between parody and cruelty. Stern was the vile clown; Imus was the nasty curmudgeon, and he played that role well. But curmudgeons, by their nature, are loathsome individuals (both in what they say and, frequently, who they are). Imus, or his radio show proxies, had attacked individuals and groups with comedic malice for years — I know, because I used to listen growing up in Jersey, before his radio show became as creaky as a 100-year-old house.

This time, one of those targets decided to fire back.

I'm watching MSNBC on Friday morning, and the female anchorwoman is presenting a story about "what's okay to say," wondering if these racial comments would have been ignored "had they come from someone other than Don Imus."

Well, of course they would have. This firestorm is a perfect storm: Imus worked for the most prominent and influential sports radio station in New York, WFAN; Rutgers's women's basketball team, the target of his slur, plays well within the scope of that influence and range of its signal. Combine those two ingredients, add a post-Kramer-tirade culture of punished speech and endless apology, and you've got one unemployed fake cowboy.

Had these comments not come from a nationally known but New York-based radio personality, who had crafted himself into some sort of quasi-Tim Russert by virtue of his political guests, they would have passed into memory like 10,000 Don Rickles one-liners that were 10,000 times worse than what Imus said.

Then again, it's not what he said, but who he said it about: A predominantly black women's basketball team — and a Cinderella one at that — comprised of mostly college underclassmen. Had Imus called the New York Knicks "nappy-headed," he'd still be croaking his way through interviews with John McCain.

Michael Richards, Jimmy The Greek ... those guys were the racists; Imus is a bully who picked on a bunch of girls who didn't deserve his indignation.

That's why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton commenting on this affair are laughable on so many fronts, because this really isn't their fight. They hear "nappy-headed" and sound the racial alarm; I hear "ho's" and believe this to be one of the most despicable things ever uttered about a group of female athletes by a mainstream media personality.

Imus, to me, was more misogynistic than racist.

To Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer's credit, I think her focus has been in the right place. "What woman reads this and cannot be personally touched?" she asked Oprah Winfrey in an interview this week. One of her players claimed on the same show that Imus stole their moment from them, and she's right: women's team sports have not grown to the point where finishing second in the NCAA national championship tournament can trump one old codger's unfunny quip.

I've turned off MSNBC, and I'm watching ESPN on Friday morning. Stephen A. Smith is on "SportsCenter," talking about the Imus firing by CBS. His advice is that we need to love one another, and understand that "racially insensitive" comments have no place in our society.

I only listened for a few moments, but didn't hear anything about Imus having attacked women who are black rather than "black women." Didn't hear anything about how the NCAA, for all of its progress, can still have the accomplishments of an entire team of female athletes overshadowed by a bad joke by a man who looks like the Crypt Keeper. Didn't hear how the media needs to be more aware, understanding and sensitive to the rights of outstanding young women not to be labeled as promiscuous and sullied in a public forum. Didn't hear what this means for female athletes of other colors who suffer similar smears about their appearance or sexuality.

Maybe it just never came up.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is the Features Editor for SportsFan Magazine in Washington, DC, and the Senior Sports Editor for The Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia. His book is "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History." His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

Comments and Conversation

April 14, 2007


Why is the media making such a huge deal about what Imus said, but no one will speak on the sense that rappers call females all sorts of names in their rap songs all the time. How about speaking on that? !!!!!!!!!

April 15, 2007


Great commentary on the whole situation. I agree that Imus’ comment was more sexist than racist. When he was suspended, I thought the punishment was appropriate. But firing him? That went too far in my opinion. I think it shows that it wasn’t so much what was said, but who said it.

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