Gender Discrimination in Sports: Don Imus and the Shaming of the Fan

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Gender Discrimination in Sports: Don Imus and the Shaming of the Fan
It has now been a week since Don Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."
 
As would be expected, countless journalists with the privilege and space to document their personal opinions on the controversy have done so—but the discussion of Imus and his words seems to begin and end with race.
 
Unfortunately, it's not that one-dimensional.
 
Imus didn't only insult the Rutgers women on the basis of their race—he insulted them on the basis of their gender. The fact that so few people have recognized as much makes a loud and grave statement about the extent to which the degradation of women in general and female athletes in particular is permitted in the United States.
 
Maybe the fact that racism applies to men as well as women makes it cooler to be outraged along black-and-white lines: If you call a guy out for being a misogynist, you might just look like a wuss. Or maybe it's that men's teams are the dominant paradigm in professional and college athletics—and that women's programs get stuck with minimal media coverage, few opportunities for professional careers, and team names like Lady Knights. 
 
Look at the country's obsession with Imus: The individuals being called on to respond—Al Sharpton, Spike Lee, Barack Obama—are black male leaders, and it's the black community that's expected to be up in arms.
 
It's not that Imus' remarks weren't racist—but the American media has harped on "nappy-headed" while mostly ignoring "hos." The double-edged insult begs for double-edged coverage, but women are the only ones who seem willing to talk about the gender implications.
 
In Wednesday's New York Times, sports columnist Selena Roberts pointed out the larger context.
 
"Ho is the new bitch," she wrote. "And bitch is the old sissy. But whatever the label, women are always first to be part of the gag when sexism and misogyny are publicly sanctioned and celebrated—particularly in sports."
 
Roberts' column illuminates the fact that Americans are desensitized to gender discrimination—which is why journalist after journalist has cried racist at  Imus without mentioning misogyny.
 
There is a common misconception that women are equal to men in this country—despite the wage gap, the threat of sexual violence, and the ongoing fight for control of one's own body. Imus' statement should have opened the door for outrage on two counts; that it didn't speaks to our collective deafness to gender issues.
 
When Imus insulted the Rutgers women's basketball team, he also insulted anyone with a passion for playing or watching competitive sports. The team's accomplishments were completely overlooked all season, and the players were right to point out that Imus deprived them of what should have been a celebratory moment. The fact that so few sports writers have stood up for women's athletics in the last week should be an embarrassment to every sports fan in this country, because we're the ones who could have looked past the politics and paid the Lady Knights the respect they deserved.
 
The fight, simply put, is far from over. Anyone who thinks it acceptable to overlook or denigrate women's athletics is following in the awful American tradition of segregation and identity-based discrimination.
 
We're better than that. Or at least we can be.
 

 
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