Imus controversy could give female athletes wake-up call William C. Rhoden

I stood in front of associate professor Barbara Osborne's sports law class at the University of North Carolina last week. The subject was the seldom-talked-about disparity of power and privilege between black and white women in the sports industry.

The timing was fitting. This year is the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the congressional legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program that receives federal financial assistance.


A week earlier, hundreds attended a convention in Cleveland, the site of the women's basketball Final Four, to celebrate and discuss Title IX, the law that changed the sports landscape in America. Title IX drastically increased the number of women involved in intercollegiate athletics, as well as the amount of money spent to support them, including scholarships, facilities, coaches and publicity.

After her class, Osborne noted how few of her students, especially the women, had any idea about the struggle that was fought to elevate women's sports to their current level.


Many of them, she said, felt that things had always been the way they are now. So many of today's female athletes have had life and opportunity handed to them on a platter. Osborne said: "They have it so good here. Then they go out in the real world and get slapped in the face by reality."

It didn't take long for Osborne's students to receive a hard dose of reality. On the day I was speaking in Chapel Hill, Don Imus, a national radio host, referred to the women on the Rutgers basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The remarks were part of off-handed comments about the NCAA championship game the night before between Rutgers and Tennessee.

For all the ugliness of the remark, I'm encouraged by the controversy it has unleashed. So many of our young people, especially women, especially African-American women, have been raised in cocoons, led to believe that sexism and racism have significantly subsided.

This naivete is so entrenched that the threshold to insult has become higher. Imus, Rush Limbaugh and others remind us that while we may sleep, the beast of bigotry never does.

Imus' comments highlighted age-old, deep-rooted stereotypes that seem to surface whenever African-American women excel in sports.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, when African-American women began to excel in track and field, their success was seen through a mainstream prism of success in a "mannish" sport and reinforced disparaging stereotypes.

In the late 1940s, an Olympic official, Norman Cox, sarcastically proposed that in the case of black women, "The International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them - the unfairly advantaged 'hermaphrodites' who regularly defeated 'normal women.' "

Linda Greene, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and a founding member of the Black Women in Sports Foundation, said Imus' characterization of the Rutgers team resurrected "old stereotypes about African-American women that date from slavery, where stereotypes of promiscuity were generated to mask the systematic rape that was a concomitant of slavery."


On the surface, Imus' remarks were aimed at African-American women. But as Greene points out: "No woman who participates in sport, and no mother or father who encourages and supports that participation, can escape their animus. Beyond his bold and overt racism lie assumptions about the proper bounds of femininity, assumptions that Title IX and other civil rights legislation sought to shatter."

William C. Rhoden writes for The New York Times.