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How a bigot got the boot

April 20, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

DAVE ZIRIN is a sportswriter and columnist for the Nation magazine. He is following up his first book What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States with a second, soon to be published by Haymarket Books, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports. Here, he talks to Socialist Worker about Don Imus' firing.

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IMUS APOLOGIZED for his comment about the Rutgers players, but it certainly wasn't the only racist slur to come out of his mouth, was it?

NOT AT all. Imus likened his comments to a slip of the tongue, but history tells us otherwise.

As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has documented, the "shlock jock" had a long and ugly history of using his radio program as a platform for prejudice. He called African-American journalist Gwen Ifill "a cleaning lady," New York Times sports reporter Bill Rhoden a "quota hire," and tennis player Amelie Mauresmo a "big lesbo."

He told 60 Minutes that he hired producer Bernard McGuirk for "n----r jokes." His co-host Sid Rosenberg described tennis player Venus Williams as an "animal" and referred to Palestinians as "stinking animals," saying, "They ought to drop the bomb right there, kill 'em all right now."

See Dave Zirin, speaking on "The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports," at Socialism 2007, June 14-17 in Chicago. See the Socialism 2007 Web site for more information.

Imus has, like others, built the latter stage of his career on Islamophobia, frequently calling Arabs "ragheads." It's a long and ugly record of reaction.

IS HE any worse than the other talk radio blowhards?

CERTAINLY THE confederate confines of talk radio are drenched in degradation. There's Rush Limbaugh, who calls Barack Obama and Halle Berry "Halfrican-Americans." There's Michael Savage, who says the Voting Rights Act put "a chad in every crack house." There's Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, who agitate for the internment of Arabs and Muslims.

They're a disgusting crew--and none of them deserves a public platform. It would be a very positive development if the anti-Imus uproar extends to these other serial bigots.

But all that being said, it must be noted that Imus is different.

He's not a Republican ideologue. Members of the media elite, like Tim Russert and Chris Matthews, and leaders of the Democratic Party, like Barack Obama and John Kerry, have been guests for years on Imus' show, despite his track record. They lent legitimacy and protection to Imus, which allowed him to be mainstream in a different kind of way than the Limbaughs and Savages.

What else to read

Dave Zirin's articles on the Imus affair appeared on the Nation, CounterPunch and ZNet Web sites. Don't miss "Don Imus and the End of Silence" and "Memo to Imus." His weekly columns, "Edge of Sports," are collected at

Dave is the author of What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States and the soon to be published Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.


What this whole episode has exposed is the way that the media and the Democratic Party can play all too comfortably on this kind of playing field.

SOME PEOPLE dismissed the protests over Imus as coming from people who "just can't take a joke." What do you say to them?

THE FIRST thing I say is: "What's so goddamn funny about calling these young women of Rutgers 'nappy-headed hos?'"

Imus' "joke," like so much of his humor, was an effort to dehumanize them. The harm is that if these ideas go unchallenged, it makes it that much easier for the media, the politicians and, frankly, ordinary people as well to be calloused, and ignore racism and sexism when it rears its head.

I see a connection, for example, between the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims as "ragheads" and "animals," alongside the racist cartoons in Western newspapers--and the fact that the U.S. war in Iraq can lead to well over 700,000 deaths with nary a word. Who cares if the Palestinian people live under occupation if they're less than human anyway?

I think one of the reasons that the reaction to Imus has been so ferocious is because of the pent-up rage people feel about the way this kind of bigotry continually goes unchallenged in mainstream politics and the media. Hurricane Katrina destroyed a majority Black city that continues to die from neglect, and not a word was said. Women face a constant barrage of sexism in our "Girls Gone Wild" culture, and if you say something about it, then you must be a humorless prig.

Imus' words touched all of those buttons, and unleashed a fury that I would describe as just and necessary.

YOU'VE WRITTEN about the way sportswriters regularly heap abuse on African American men basketball players--through coded references to the way they dress or the music they listen to. Can you talk about that?

TO BE a basketball player right now is to be the spittoon for the reservoirs of racial hostility in this country.

Much of this has been fed by NBA Commissioner David Stern. After conferencing with 2004 Bush campaign adviser Matthew Dowd about how to give the league more "red-state appeal," and after the infamous brawl in Auburn Hills between members of the Indiana Pacers and white fans, we started to see a relentless backlash.

Code words are used like saying the league has become "too hip hop" or "too gangsta." New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick wrote, "NBAers are showing up to speak at schools and in airports and for TV interviews looking like recruitment officers for the Bloods and Crips." The hideous columnist Jason Whitlock calls the "element" attracted by NBA players "the black KKK."

And it's not just reporters. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "I don't mean to say [this] as a snide remark toward a certain population in our society, but they have a limitation of their attention span, a lot of it probably due to too much rap music going in their ears. The players have been dressing in prison garb the last five or six years. All the stuff that goes on--it's like gangster, thuggery stuff."

This is nothing but racism--particularly galling coming from Jackson, who spent the 1960s and '70s dressed like a roadie for Country Joe and the Fish.

Imus' great mistake was he eschewed the codes--but just because the language becomes coded doesn't make it any less dangerous.

In this vein, it's all too predictable that media hacks--and Imus himself--are now trying to make this an issue about hip hop. Imus' defenders across the political spectrum are saying, "The hip hop made him do it!" We have to say, "Don't change the subject!"

This is about the mainstreaming of racism and sexism, and people saying no more. Of course, sexism in particular needs to be challenged throughout culture, including hip hop, but people like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter don't give a damn about fighting sexism, any more than George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to liberate women.

THERE'S ALSO a connection in the Imus controversy to something else you've written about--the importance of the Title IX law that played such a role in opening up sports to women.

IT REALLY took Coach Stringer at Rutgers and her team to remind the media that Imus' comments weren't just racist, but sexist as well. As she said, "I would ask you...who among you could have heard the comments and not have been personally offended?...Are women 'hos.' Think about that. Would you have wanted your daughter to have been called that?...It's more than the Rutgers women's basketball team. It is all women athletes. It is all women."

Title IX was supposed to level playing fields between men and women. In one respect, the results have been remarkable. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, one in 27 high school girls played sports 25 years ago; one in three do today. 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 around the country.

But for women--especially African American women--sports remains a place of denigration, not celebration. Swimsuit issues, cheerleaders and beer commercial sexism define women in the testosterone-addled sports world. There's an arsenal of homophobia and mockery sprayed at those who to dare sweat, compete and play hard.

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.

OBVIOUSLY, THIS isn't the first time some celebrity has uttered something bigoted, but there seems to be a stronger reaction this time--not just from the Rutgers players, but generally. What do you think?

THAT'S AN important question. One reason, as I stated earlier, is that I feel there's so much pent-up frustration over the mainstreaming of racism and sexism, with so little response. People are sick of being dumped on.

But there's something else going on here as well. Remember that Rush Limbaugh felt the biggest basklash of his career when he said that the media hyped Philadelphia Eagles football star Donovan McNabb because of their "social concern" to see a successful African American quarterback.

Both Imus and Rush have built careers out of this kind of ignorance, but when they cross-pollinated their bigotry with sports, a new level of anger came out.

Why is that? I think it's because we're sold the false idea that sports are a safe space from this kind of political swill.

We're also sold the idea that sports are a "field of dreams," a true meritocracy. But when the playing field is shown to be un-level, it can dramatize and make real the hidden inequities in our society that otherwise go unnoticed.

Lastly, the reason this has garnered a deeper response is because Coach Stringer and the Rutgers team refused--like so many of Imus' targets--to be silent. As team captain Essence Carson said, "I know we're at a young age, but we definitely understand what's right, and what should get done, and what should be made of this. We're happy--we're glad to finally have the opportunity to stand up for what we know is right...We can speak up for women, not just African-American women, but all women."

The lesson in their refusal to be silent should not be lost.

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