Where Credit is Due: Rutgers Basketball, Don Imus and Drive Time Shock

May 8, 2011, 1:08 am

It is interesting to me that the most complete account I have yet read of Don Imus’s attack on the Rutgers women’s basketball team is on the front page of the Business section of the New York Times. This subtle — or not so subtle – placement of the story makes the point that, beyond the ways that shock jocks such as Imus have coarsened our public culture over time, racism and sexism are literally business as usual for the broadcasting industry in the United States.

I want to emphasize the sexism part of this equation because so much emphasis has been put (and correctly so) on the racial quality of the attack, and I don’t think we can think properly about one without giving the other equal weight. This is particularly important when we are looking at traditionally male institutions like athletics or the military, where women are still thought of as unseemly, sexually deviant interlopers. Athletics are a particularly poignant location, because the level to which athletes are celebrated often covers up a set of contradictory realities about the imagined connections between athletic ability and class mobility. Sexism is an important point of entry for critiquing athletics as an industry that promises respectability to the poor, as is race. Although high-profile male athletes are subject to similar sorts of racist depictions (and all athletes at the college level, many of them poor and/or of color) are exploited terribly to promote corporate public and private universities, only female athletes seem to be fair game for attacks on them as a sex. If they are not lesbians, they are “‘ho’s,” as Imus put it.

I am glad to see that so far C. Vivian Stringer and the proud Black and white women she coaches have been too dignified to respond to this horrible behavior, and have not responded to Imus’s attempt to “reach out.” Your silence speaks volumes, ladies, and I applaud you. Here are a few thoughts from the Radical.

Morning drive time radio is a horrible institution: the bigotry, the representative woman cackling in the background while men tell poopy jokes, the guests that are inveigled onto the air to be ritually humiliated. You name it, I hate it, and I have a very high tolerance for many things that other people don’t want to look at. That Imus’s employers are “shocked — shocked!” by this incident is disingenuous at best, since the only thing that distinguishes this particular set of ugly sentiments from the normal fare offered up on morning drive time is that the women being attacked are well known to all of us because of their accomplishments and the dignified way that they and their coach comport themselves off the court. As context, I would like to add that it is also really not ok to: run radio contests for the world’s fattest prom date, for the ugliest bride, and for crack ho of the month. It is not ok to encourage people with Down’s syndrome to call in so that they can be made sport of without their informed consent. It is not ok to talk endlessly about one’s own scrotum, even though the only person being degraded is oneself. I have heard all of these things while heading up I-91 to Zenith. Often I turn them off immediately; sometimes I listen, cultural critic that I am, to see exactly how far it will go.

So even though Imus has done a terrible thing, to single him out as if racism and sexism were not endemic to morning radio, and were not being cultivated by broadcast conglomerates to make big bucks, is deeply dishonest.

Furthermore, I think the comparison of this to the pattern of media representation that we saw as the the Duke men’s lacrosse team scandal unfolded over the last year is instructive. When it became clear that Durham prosecutor Michael Nifong had run roughshod over the investigation, and that the exotic dancers may have made charges that were untrue or inaccurate, those people down at Duke who have been wearing the “Innocent” bracelets claimed that their faith in the players was vindicated. This view has been tacitly, if not explicitly, supported by the media as accounts of team behavior in general have dropped out of the news. But really — although the lacrosse players are not guilty of a prosecutable crime, that does not make all of them people who are innocent of any wrongdoing. Many players who were under legal drinking age spent the entire day of the incident drinking (illegal); the dancers were, it is clear, physically but not sexually assaulted; and this behavior is said to be part of a pattern of ingrained, anti-social behavior that repeatedly led to people being targeted by team members for violence, either on the streets or at team parties (and do we think that women have never been raped at Duke lacrosse team parties? that women under the influence of drugs and alcohol have not been coerced to have sex without their explicit consent? That would make Duke lacrosse parties quite exceptional at any college or university.) According to published reports, the ethical culture of this lacrosse team was so out of touch that many players who were not involved in this incident, and who did not do anything wrong, still refused to speak about what had happened, in the misplaced belief that loyalty to one’s friends is a higher virtue than treating people who aren’t on your team with respect. And in the face of all this unethical behavior on the part of the lacrosse team, a great many people at Duke — most prominently, the women’s lacrosse team — still insist on characterizing these young men as “innocent.” Can you hear that female broadcaster cackling in the background? I can.

That these male lacrosse players at a private university, almost all of whom are white, wish to be perceived as pure as the driven snow; and that C. Vivian Stringer’s squad of public university scholar-athletes, almost all of whom are black and who have consistently carried themselves with dignity and grace, are slandered on national radio, ought to tell us something about selling race and sex in Amerika today. *Who* is innocent? And where are the conservative cultural critics right now who are so eager to purge our public culture of vulgarity?

But it should also tell us something very specific about the radio industry: that corporations are making the big bucks, once again, from cynical commercial appeals to the notion that men get off on seeing women shamed, and that whites get off on insulting people of color. Yes, Imus should be taken off the air, and forced to do whatever mea culpas are standard at this moment in time. But Congress might also wish to have public hearings on what industry practices led up to this and why a broadcaster as experienced as Don Imus thought he could get away with a vile crack about teenage girls in the first place. The National Organization for Women also needs to get its act in gear: what happened to all the critiques of violence against women disseminated in popular culture that were such a focus for consciousness raising in the 1970′s?

And if I were Rutgers, I would file a defamation lawsuit against the network, and the FCC, for allowing an atmosphere to develop that made this incident possible, and make them both write me a big check.


Update: How interesting is this?

Apparently, there is someone out there cruising for postings on the Duke lacrosse team controversy who has created a blog to host them: his name is KC Johnson, and he is a Professor of 20th c. political history at Brooklyn College. The blog is called href=””>Durham in Wonderland. My posting was picked up minutes after I put it up, after which followed a barrage of intimidating e-mails. How do I know who these people are? Because of the trusty sitemeter, I picked up multiple anonymous comments from Duke, which them led me back to Johnson’s website. And of course I have ISP’s for all the computers. Since I am now temporarily turning off the anonymous comments function (registered users of Blogspot can still comment) because I think we have a full range of fulminations from those defending Duke’s honor, you’ll have to go to Johnson’s blog to get the rest of them.

But isn’t it interesting how, when you ask a question like this, that the whole point of the post been lost in a renewed, shrill effort to demonstrate “innocence?”

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