Starr: Don Imus Is Us

It was a team meeting unlike any other. Seated on straight-backed chairs and couches in a living room of the New Jersey governor's mansion just outside Princeton, 10 members of Rutgers University's women's basketball team shared their pain with Don Imus last Thursday over sandwiches, salads and sodas. C. Vivian Stringer, coach of the Scarlet Knights, told the recently fired radio host that he had robbed her players of their triumphant moment. "I told Mr. Imus, 'I can't believe I even have to say the word 'ho'," Stringer told NEWSWEEK.

Imus seemed genuinely apologetic, asking for forgiveness and telling the players and their relatives—about two dozen participants in all—that making fun of people was just what he did. He insisted that he didn't mean to hurt anyone, according to someone who attended the meeting (but did not want to speak on the record because she was not authorized to disclose details). "We want to know the truth here, we want to know everything you are feeling," Imus said to the team, as his wife, Deirdre, told NEWSWEEK. Then, for nearly two hours, the former radio host listened to the players' comments—and questions.

The one that kept coming up, in various formulations and from numerous players, was "Why?" Why target them? How could he not know his remarks were hurtful? Was he proud of making his living by ridiculing others? The players were clearly less than impressed by Imus's wan explanation that ridicule was his job. And yet on Friday they would announce, "We, the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights basketball team, accept—accept—Mr. Imus's apology, and we are now in the process of forgiving ... The healing process must begin."

The magnanimity of 10 women athletes, most 19 or 20 years old, provided a stark contrast to the ire and invective on both sides of the Imus debate last week. While the shock jock turned media power broker vacillated between contrition and umbrage ("I'm a good man who said a bad thing"), and old-school civil-rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson demanded Imus's head, the women of Rutgers schooled their elders in civility and grace. The Knights never called for the radio host's dismissal. They wanted both the world and Don Imus to know that they did not consider themselves helpless victims. "I know that this is not my problem," one player told Imus, according to the Rev. DeForest Soaries, who mediated the Thursday-night session. "I don't want you to think that I question myself because of what you said. I'm a classy woman at a great university. I will pray for you."

In a sense, Imus lost his job not when he leveled his double-barreled slur at the Rutgers team, but when the team held its press conference Tuesday—just a week after their Cinderella season came to a close with a 59-46 loss to Tennessee in the NCAA championship game. The image of the self-possessed young women encouraged employees at NBC to rise up and call for Imus's firing; their poise may also have persuaded advertisers to begin pulling their sponsorships of Imus's show.

The first generation of athletes to live wholly in an era shaped by Title IX, the landmark legislation that made equality for women athletes the law of the land (if not always the reality on campus), the women of Rutgers showed a strength that until recently was all too rare in women their age. That confidence, women's rights activists, coaches and players believe, is born and nurtured at least partly through athletics. "That's what sports does," says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "It breeds strong, confident women."

Still, Imus's comments stung. "When I heard the quote I was confused," Kia Vaughn, a 6-foot-4 sophomore center from the Bronx, told NEWSWEEK. "I felt intimidated and scared, and it was the first time that I ever felt that way in my life ... I couldn't believe someone was talking about my womanhood and calling me a ho." But the players didn't let the hurt penetrate their pride. "Why would he say that if he doesn't know us or what we accomplished?" asked forward Myia McCurdy.

For team captain Essence Carson, a 6-foot forward/guard from Paterson, N.J., who wowed the public with her poise, Imus's remark was more sexist than racist. "It was an attack on women first," Carson told NEWSWEEK. "He just made it race-specific." Initially, the Knights wanted to ignore Imus and absorb their pain as a team, she said, but after a little discussion the women decided they "had to take a stand." Stringer's example was key, said Carson; "Coach has been through everything you can think of, [so] we know we have the strength to bear anything."

The daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Stringer is also the third-winningest coach in women's basketball history and a longtime advocate of leveling the playing field for females. She first drew national attention in 1982, guiding small, historically black Cheyney State into the Final Four—and went on to make women's basketball a campus craze at the University of Iowa in 1983. A decade later she led Iowa to the Final Four. For Stringer the success was bittersweet; her husband, William, had suffered a heart attack and died at 47 earlier that year. The couple had three children: two sons and a daughter who suffers from spinal meningitis. Two years later, with her three children in tow, Stringer headed to Rutgers. While she called its basketball program "the Jewel of the East," she told friends the university's efforts to help her cope with child care, providing round-the-clock assistance for her bedridden daughter, were instrumental in her choice.

This past year Stringer recruited her best class ever. Yet the highly regarded squad lost four of its games to top-seven teams, including a record 40-point rout at the hands of Duke, and fell from its customary place in the top-25 ranking. Stringer ripped her young players as all too impressed with their own reputations. She boosted her already grueling practices and demanded that they return the clothes with school colors and logos that they had received.

The women rebounded. By the time they hit the Final Four, the Knights had grown into a tightknit group with a deep bond of trust with their coach. They got hammered on the boards in their final game, but every one of the 10 women plans to return to play for Stringer next year—making Rutgers an early favorite to make it back to the Final Four in 2008.

After accepting Imus's apology on Friday, the Scarlet Knights vowed to get back to thinking about basketball—and their studies. Coach Stringer knew it wouldn't be easy to stay focused, given the magnitude of what had just transpired—young black women speaking truth to media power, and media power listening. In talking with the press, Stringer pointed out that Imus made his remarks on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death—musing that that historical coincidence showed how little progress has been made in race relations. Her message to her players? They need to concentrate on their exams, the coach said. Then a little bit of wonderment crept in. "We need to come back next year and say that this was a great and joyous time," Stringer said, a time "we helped to change the culture."