A day after politicians and civil rights leaders chastised radio personality Don Imus for his offensive racial comments about Rutgers University women's basketball players, the team's coach turned the spotlight back on her players.
At a campus news conference attended by her team, C. Vivian Stringer described the players yesterday as "the best this nation has to offer, and we are so very fortunate to have them at Rutgers University."
"They are young ladies of class, distinction. They are articulate. They are gifted. They are God's representatives in every sense of the word," said Stringer, who noted that her freshman class - half of the 10-member team - carries a grade-point average of better than 3.0.
For many, Imus' comments speak to the constant struggle faced by female athletes.
Rutgers captain Essence Carson said what should have been a shining moment for the team - an improbable runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament - has been "stolen" by the controversy. "You must not forget that we are students first and then we're athletes," Carson said.
"As Coach Stringer said, we realize that it's about women across the world, across this nation," Carson said. "It just so happens that we finally take a stand."
Carson said the players have agreed to meet with Imus - who was suspended Monday by CBS Radio and MSNBC for two weeks - so that he could apologize personally. On his April 4 radio and television show, Imus described the players the morning after they lost to Tennessee, 59-46, in the championship game as "some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they've got tattoos" and as "nappy-headed-hos." He publicly apologized on Friday's program and again Monday, amid mounting criticism.
While the 1972 passage of Title IX - the federal legislation meant to correct imbalances between men's and women's high school and collegiate athletics by requiring fairness in funding sports programs - has had an enormous impact, some say, women's sports still face substantial challenges.
"No one in the 1970s could have ever envisioned filling an area in a place like Cleveland for a national championship game. It just didn't seem possible," said pioneering women's basketball coach Cathy Rush, who won national titles at tiny Immaculata College in the pre-Title IX era and has done network TV broadcast work.
But except in rare instances, such as at the University of Tennessee, even successful women's basketball programs have a tough time attracting crowds in their home arenas.
"Some of the [NCAA tournament] regionals I saw on TV, the place was empty," Rush said.
And she remains perplexed by the tepid enthusiasm for women's professional sports, such as the WNBA.
Linda Kilpatrick, girls basketball coach at Southern High School in Anne Arundel County, who just finished her 30th season, said balancing athletics and femininity gets tiresome.
"Whenever we would go to away games ... I had them dress in a dress or nice pants, and I would too," Kilpatrick said. "I wanted them looking feminine and not to be labeled. I think women's sports is always trying to live that down, and here it goes again.
"Just because these [Rutgers] girls have tattoos, they're given some name, and I didn't like it. I was glad attention was brought to it and whatever [Imus] gets he deserves."
Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based marketing executive who has worked with athletes, said female sports figures are still judged more by sex appeal than their male counterparts.
"For women, it's always more difficult, because they not only have to be great athletes, they have to be beautiful," he said. "Actually, sometimes they can just be beautiful. Look at [former tennis player] Anna Kournikova. There is no male equivalent."
Kournikova is an advertising favorite despite mediocre credentials on the tennis court.
Dorfman said, from a gender perspective, the Tennessee players should be as offended by Imus as the Rutgers players, because he pigeonholed them as "pretty" girls and didn't mention their athleticism.
Former Baltimore Colts linebacker Stan White's daughter, Amanda, was a two-time Sun Athlete of the Year at Dulaney High School in the early 1990s, participating in cross country, track and swimming.
"It's that old stereotype of women athletes who are good are really more like men," Stan White said. "They're not feminine."
And, as a female, his daughter received less news media attention, he said.
"I'm sure if that had been Tommy Polley [a Dunbar High athlete who went on to play in the NFL] or one of the male stars of the same time, it would have been a bigger deal," he said.
Teresa Waters, who coaches the girls basketball team at River Hill High in Howard County, called the Imus comments racist and sexist.
"To me, this is a learning experience for the younger generation, because you just don't patronize things that are degrading, although a lot of this generation does," she said.
Lin James, a 40-year coach at North Harford High, said legislation, such as Title IX, may change official policies, but cultural attitudes are more stubborn. She said "a lot of men in very powerful positions," clinging to long-held beliefs, have difficulty treating women sports programs equally with those for men.
"We're not even near 50 percent in terms of equality," James said. "And, in my opinion, just like a person who is a racist, you cannot make a law that changes that."
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The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this article.