By now, everybody has heard about syndicated-radio personality Don Imus and his comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team. While almost everyone acknowledges that Imus' comments—calling the members of the Scarlet Knights "nappy-headed hos"—were out of line, there are those who wonder, "Why the fuss now?"
While many applaud CBS Radio's decision to fire Imus over the incident—among them the Rev. Al Sharpton—others believe the originally announced two-week suspension would be punishment enough. Their defense was that, while his comments were reprehensible, he shouldn't be fired for doing what has come to be expected of him. After all, Imus has built a career on making just those kinds of comments. African Americans, Jews, women ... Imus has insulted them all. And for that, he was paid seven figures.
So why, they ask, all the fuss? Here's why: Up to now, Imus has taken aim at adults—rapper Snoop Dogg, PBS correspondent Gwen Ifil, sportscaster Keith Olberman, to name a few. But this time, Imus attacked 10 kids—10 young ladies who did nothing except lose a basketball game.
America tolerates a lot from media figures. They can say just about anything and get away with it. It is a simple unfortunate facet of our culture. We're drawn to bad things. We slow down to look at car wrecks. We watch hockey for the fights. We listen to people who say repugnant things. We are drawn to controversy like moths to a bug zapper. Some listen to personalities like Imus to hear what he will say next. Some agree with him. Some can't stand him, but listen "just to know what the 'enemy' is up to."
But for all that, there is another thing about Americans. We have ideals that we hold sacred and keep drawn around us like invisible lines in the sand. Americans are protective of children—especially girls. Adults can defend themselves. Kids can't. Even though the Rutgers ladies are far from children, they are not adults. Not one of the members of the basketball squad is older than 21. Grown men shouldn't pick on kids. Imus violated that tacit understanding with his comments.
To make matters worse, Imus also tipped another sacred cow with his latest tirade—the heroic underdog. This Rutgers team is the first in the school's history to make it to the women's Final Four. After starting the season with a losing record, this young team mounted a charge that resulted in a season record of 11-2. Their Cinderella story ended at the hands of the seven-time national champion Lady Volunteers of Tennessee in the championship game. But no one can deny that it was one heck of a run. It was the stuff of Hollywood legend. Until Imus interjected himself into the script, that is.
The most perplexed person in all of this is probably Imus himself. He has been doing this—and getting away with it—for years. Perhaps that is the real point. He has been allowed to get away with it. And America has continued to listen.
So, what does that say about us?