It was five years ago today that the particularly nasty barb spewed from the mouth of radio shock jock Don Imus and entered the national lexicon. In the days that followed, there were threats of boycotts and calls for firings as advertisers from American Express to Proctor & Gamble Co. fled Imus in droves.
MSNBC announced it would no longer simulcast Imus in the Morning, and after days of protests CBS Radio eventually relented, dropping the hammer on Imus and banishing him from the airwaves, albeit temporarily.
In the middle of that storm were the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a team comprised of eight African-Americans and two whites who were still reeling from losing in the title game of the NCAA Women’s Tournament when they found themselves the subjects of scorn by a man they didn’t know who spoke to a national audience of millions.
In its wake there were press conferences, mea culpas and lawsuits. Five years later, Imus is back on the air, setting up shop at Cumulus-owned WABC in New York. Imus has had the occasional racial dustup since, but nothing approaching that grand misstep that was the Rutgers basketball team.
To find many of the girls, now women, you’d have to scour the corners of the globe. Several members of the team, including Rutgers team captain Essence Carson (New York Liberty), Kia Vaughn (New York Liberty), Matee Ajavon (Washington Mystics) and Epiphanny Prince (Chicago Sky), reached the pinnacle of their sport, playing in the WNBA.
And those that didn’t go on to play in the WNBA pursued their dreams in other endeavors. Myia McCurdey is a Client Service Associate at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Ohio. Brittany Ray is studying to be a chef in Pittsburgh. Heather Zurich is an assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara.
So were any lessons were learned from the incident five years ago? By some, if not others. Shock jocks still behave boorishly. In 2007, it was Imus. In 2012, conservative talker Rush Limbaugh drew condemnation for calling out Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke after she testified in front of a Democratic committee on Capitol Hill regarding government subsidized contraception.
“What does that make her?” Limbaugh asked on his February 29th broadcast. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
But if the shock jocks haven’t learned, perhaps that wasn’t the point. Perhaps it was what the Rutgers women learned about themselves.
Alongside her coach, C. Vivian Stringer, Essence Carson stepped to the forefront and provided a voice for her team. Currently playing overseas in Spain in the Final 8 of Euroleague for Rivas Ecopolis during the WNBA’s off-season, Carson said via email that the incident forever changed she and her teammates.
“I’m reminded rather often about the Imus incident. Whenever I have an interview about my life and/or career the question is always asked,” Carson said, “Being the spokeswoman for the team allowed me to blossom. I fully took on the leadership role. After the controversy, I became more vocal… something that I wasn’t totally comfortable with before that point.”
Yet during the initial bombardment, Carson admits to being overwhelmed with phone calls from reporters and television stations as she was followed to the gym and trailed across campus. “My privacy…and my family’s privacy were non-existent,” she said.
But it was worth it, Carson said, because she and her teammates used the incident to help dismiss preconceived notions on race and gender issues. “Shedding light on those issues allowed people, many young women, to know that it’s OK to stand up for what you believe is right and to detest what you feel is wrong. Also, our ability to persevere…to be fearless…are my strongest memories of that team.”
Brittany Ray was just a freshman on the 2006-07 team. Currently studying at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Ray said she took her cues from team leaders like Carson and Zurich and her coach on how to persevere under pressure.
“I tell people that I played at Rutgers and automatically the first thing they say is ‘Were you a part of that team? The team that Don Imus was talking about?’ It comes up all the time,” she said.
A freshman at the time, Ray didn’t even know who Imus was when he volleyed his verbal grenade at her team. And he, she felt, knew nothing about them aside from a three second clip he might have caught on ESPN.
“He disrespected our team and he had no right to do that. He knew nothing about our team. He knew nothing about the struggle that we went through just to get to a national championship that year,” Ray said.
“I learned from my coach and the leaders on my team, like Essence and Heather Zurich, that you have to stand up for yourself when something like that happens. Out of the entire incident I just learned about the value of being a leader and standing up for what you believe in.”
While she, like members of her team, accepted Imus’ apology days later and has since moved on, what does trouble Ray is how the “Imus incident” overshadows her team’s amazing run that season. “We had actually made it all the way to the national championship,” Ray said.
“Nobody remembers that. We’d just come off up competing in the national championship and to think that only two days later something could happen and distort our accomplishment of making it that far.”
Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., played an integral role five years ago mediating a face-to-face meeting between the Rutgers team and Imus. His memories of the team, and how they stood strong and stood together is one that he carries with him.
“I’ll always admire the way the Rutgers women handled themselves at matter and were able to move past it. For two or three days it was one of the biggest stories in the world, but they had a unified response,” Rev. Soaries said.
“They gave their word to each other and kept their word and they functioned as a unit. They didn’t look to exploit this. They were a team on the court and a team off the court. They refused to act like victims.”