Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:01):

Hey everyone, just a note that we discuss offensive, racist and sexist language in this episode.


In 2007, the Rutgers College women’s basketball team had a Cinderella season. Despite a rocky start and relative inexperience, they fought their way to the Final Four.

Clips (00:20):

You have to be so impressed with what Rutgers has done in this tournament. They have just been sensational.

Susie Banikarim (00:28):

Ultimately, they would lose the championship game to a powerhouse Tennessee team, but the Rutgers women had still achieved the unthinkable.

Essence Carson (00:35):

When we returned to New Jersey, it was almost as if we won. Our fans were so supportive, they were so welcoming.

Susie Banikarim (00:48):

And then the morning after the game, a hugely popular shock jock named Don Imus got on the air.

Clips (00:56):

So I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers in Tennessee, the Women’s Final.

Susie Banikarim (01:03):

And with a string of racist and sexist comments about the predominantly black team, Imus diminished their remarkable achievement and threw them into a national firestorm.


I am Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:19):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:20):

And this is In Retrospect where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (01:26):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (01:28):

Today, we’re talking about a college basketball team that was thrown into the national spotlight against their will, but we are also talking about who is allowed to respond in anger when they are publicly targeted and who gets centered when these stories get told. This is part one.


Jess, do you remember this story? Do you remember when this all happened?

Jessica Bennett (01:48):

Yeah. I actually have quite a vivid memory of it because I was at Newsweek at the time as a young reporter and Newsweek, who would do the story of the week every week on the cover of their magazine, put this on the cover. I remember the headline was Race Power in the Media and it had an image of the basketball team against Imus looking sort of stern and forlorn, and it was a huge deal.

Susie Banikarim (02:14):

Yeah, I was at ABC when this happened and it was kind of an unavoidable story for a few weeks, right? It just completely dominated national headlines, so much so that I think there was a poll at the time where people said they felt like it was getting too much coverage-

Jessica Bennett (02:28):

Oh, that’s interesting.

Susie Banikarim (02:29):

… Which is something we experience a lot in media. I think stories become red-hot-

Jessica Bennett (02:33):


Susie Banikarim (02:33):

… And then they’re sort of obsessed over and then people kind of move on.

Jessica Bennett (02:37):

And it’s interesting too because I guess Don Imus was huge. That’s what I learned when this story came out, but I had never heard of him. I don’t know if that was kind of an elite East Coast thing to know about him or maybe I wasn’t running in those circles. I remember, didn’t he famously wear cowboy boots?

Susie Banikarim (02:54):


Jessica Bennett (02:54):

He had this essence to him. He was hugely popular, but I at the time was, “Who the hell is this guy?”

Susie Banikarim (03:00):

Yeah. We weren’t his demographic. And I think also, Jess, we didn’t commute to work in a car, so we weren’t as likely to be into talk radio.

Jessica Bennett (03:07):

Right. Well, okay. And so I remember him being a shock jock. I remember this stir was a huge deal, but I don’t really understand sports.

Susie Banikarim (03:17):

I’m not a big sports person either, as you know.

Jessica Bennett (03:20):

I’m kidding. Yeah, I understand them enough, but I’m not a huge sports person either. And so what exactly does he say and why?

Susie Banikarim (03:26):

So we didn’t play the Don Imus comments in the introduction because I have to say they’re quite jarring. I remember hearing them all the time when it happened, but for some reason, going back and listening to them again feels really strange. They’re so offensive, and I’m going to play them for you now because I do think it’s important to hear them for yourself. But let me give you a little context. The Rutgers women’s basketball team has made it to the Final Four. They’ve had this crazy season where they were not expected to be a powerhouse team. They are having this amazing moment and the next morning, Don Imus gets on his radio show that he does every morning.

Jessica Bennett (04:10):

Wait, and quickly, how many people are tuning in to Imus at this point?

Susie Banikarim (04:14):

Oh, millions. He has millions of daily listeners across the country. He’s available on more than 70 stations and in addition to that, his show is actually simulcast on cable, on MSNBC. So he wasn’t just a radio show, he was also a morning show on television where they literally just filmed him and his crew at the mics in the studio.

Jessica Bennett (04:33):

Oh, okay, just talking? It’s like very early podcast.

Susie Banikarim (04:36):

Yeah, very early podcast and roughly an additional 300,000 people are watching on TV. It’s a sizable audience, and he has a lot of influence.

Jessica Bennett (04:46):

Okay, so back to the comments.

Susie Banikarim (04:48):

So the comments come on April 4th, 2007, the same day the team has returned home from the championship game and at the end of this historic season, and Don Imus has this exchange with his executive producer on the show.

Clips (05:03):

So I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the Women’s Final. Had some rough girls from Rutgers, man, they got tattoos. Some hardcore hos. That’s some nappy-headed hos.

Jessica Bennett (05:18):

Jesus, it’s like, you know how they talk about bystander intervention? It’s like these are these guys who are just egging each other on and there’s no sane person in the room to be like, “Whoa, hey, it’s not funny and what you’re saying is deeply offensive.”

Susie Banikarim (05:33):

Yeah, it’s just disgusting and there’s something so stark about how casually he’s talking about this group of college girls. And also something that really bothers me about it is the way they’re giggling like they just love how funny they’re being.

Jessica Bennett (05:47):


Susie Banikarim (05:47):

The other thing I think is interesting is that he often would say, Don Imus, that it was like a locker room.

Jessica Bennett (05:53):

He would say that his show was like a locker room?

Susie Banikarim (05:56):

Yeah, like this is a locker room.

Jessica Bennett (05:57):

Oh, wow. That is much more meaningful now in the Trump era.

Susie Banikarim (06:01):

Yes. It makes me think of that whole thing when Donald Trump was like, “Oh, I said, I grabbed women by the pussy, and it was just locker room talk.”

Jessica Bennett (06:09):

Right. It was just locker room talk. So this is Don Imus’ personal locker room.

Susie Banikarim (06:12):

And I think what’s hard to listen to here, the idea that this is just what a group of white men say to each other when they think no one’s listening or-

Jessica Bennett (06:23):

Except when they think people are listening,

Susie Banikarim (06:26):

… Even when they think people are listening, listening. Right, like they felt right. Totally comfortable saying this. They did not feel like this was wrong in any way. They don’t seem even a little hesitant about it.

Jessica Bennett (06:36):

And you actually cut some of this. This isn’t even the full clip. Correct?

Susie Banikarim (06:40):

Yes. There’s a longer version of this. We did not include all of it because everything they say is really offensive. And the part that really got the most attention at the time was when, and I just want to say even repeating this makes me uncomfortable, but when he called them nappy-headed hos.

Jessica Bennett (06:59):

Right. I remember that as being the headline.

Susie Banikarim (07:01):

Yeah and that’s a really complicated insult. We’ll get into why that has cultural and racial underpinnings that make it even more offensive than you might initially realize. But again, these are kids, these are girls, and he’s calling them whores.

Jessica Bennett (07:27):

This is the kind of trash that Don Imus was known for, correct? But who was Imus? Can you tell me more about him?

Susie Banikarim (07:35):

Yeah, so he was kind of an odd character. He was this really tall, lanky man who always wore a cowboy hat and he carried a gun for protection. He had this very famous ranch in New Mexico he would go to a lot of the time when he wasn’t recording. And in the ’80s, he actually had a pretty serious alcohol and cocaine problem-

Jessica Bennett (07:56):


Susie Banikarim (07:56):

… And admitted later that he was often drunk or high during the show. So even though he was really popular, he was very erratic. He missed a 100 days of work in one year-

Jessica Bennett (08:08):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (08:08):

… He would sleep on park benches, he would show up barefoot, but he was the number one DJ in the country, so he got away with a lot of that. And then eventually, they had to cut him loose and he cleaned up his act and he went and did a radio show somewhere else in the country and eventually made his way back to New York. So he wasn’t under-the-influence when he made these comments. And he had, at this stage, established himself as a very mainstream figure in politics and journalism despite this crazy past.

Jessica Bennett (08:47):

I’m assuming he was a Conservative.

Susie Banikarim (08:49):

No, actually he wasn’t conservative. In fact, he had endorsed Bill Clinton in his first run. So what’s interesting is he was kind of equal opportunity. He disdained all politicians and railed against them and said they were all phonies, but he did occasionally endorse some and Bill Clinton was one of those. But what’s interesting is that the audience was most likely Republican than Conservative because Republicans and Conservatives were about twice as likely to listen to talk radio at that time. And I think the thing about Don Imus is his audience was very varied, meaning a lot of Washington elites listened to him and also just random Joe Blow in the country. But his fan base was very attached to him, I think partially because he was on the air for so many hours, it felt like you were kind of part of this-

Jessica Bennett (09:36):


Susie Banikarim (09:37):

… Party, I guess, for lack of another way of saying it.

Jessica Bennett (09:38):

Club, locker room.

Susie Banikarim (09:39):

This locker room.

Jessica Bennett (09:40):

Part of his locker room.

Susie Banikarim (09:41):

This locker room.

Jessica Bennett (09:42):

Okay, and so Imus was considered a shock jock, which it sounds very like ’80s when we say it now, what does that mean exactly, other than doing wild antics, I think?

Clips (09:53):

Imus in the Morning. Here now is America’s original old timer, Crazy Bob with a little…

Susie Banikarim (10:01):

Yeah. So this was a term that was first used in the ’80s. It’s essentially a radio personality who is deliberately provocative and inflammatory and says really offensive things. So that was kind of Imus’ shtick anyway, but it was a term most associated with Howard Stern. I don’t know if you know Howard Stern.

Clips (10:19):


Susie Banikarim (10:20):

… He’s a radio personality. He’s still on the air now, and he’s the person who gave rise to the concept.

Jessica Bennett (10:28):

Oh, he’s the original shock jock?

Susie Banikarim (10:30):

He’s not the original shock jock, but he’s the one most people think of when you say the word.

Jessica Bennett (10:34):

Okay. I’m looking at examples of what shock jocks [inaudible 00:10:38], like attempting to sneak toy weapons onto a plane at an airport, blocking off traffic lanes in San Francisco during rush hour while his sidekick got a haircut. I don’t know what the point of that would be. I do remember Howard Stern always doing creepy gross sex things like having women mud-wrestle or other things of that nature.

Susie Banikarim (10:58):

In his studio.

Jessica Bennett (10:59):

But I guess I just didn’t realize they were just doing dumb shit.

Susie Banikarim (11:03):

Yeah, it was incredibly juvenile. It was just silly. But occasionally, because there was this undercurrent of sexism and racism in a lot of these environments, sometimes the jokes crossed the line into things that were pretty unpleasant. Most shock jocks didn’t have the kind of platform Imus did, right?

Jessica Bennett (11:22):


Susie Banikarim (11:23):

Imus went from being this kind of thing, this kind of jokester who was just crank-calling a politician to ask if he wanted to join showbiz or calling a phone operator and asking her if she wanted to mess around. He went from that to being a more national figure because he actually was kind of intellectual. So he started to ask people whose books he read and whose ideas he was interested in to join the show. And over time, that became a really big part of the show. So Bill Clinton, who I mentioned he endorsed, appeared on his show regularly during his Presidential campaign, senators regularly appeared on the show and Joe Biden was one of those senators, John McCain, John Kerry, and really famous journalists at the time, Tim Russert, who was the host of Meet the Press for a long time, Tom Brokaw, who was a very famous… It was a common place to go for journalists who wanted to mix it up and show that they weren’t as stiff or staid as they appeared on the air.


And interestingly, Barack Obama had once been on the show and I think that just was because he had a lot of power. He was on the air for many hours a day, five days a week and as I said, millions and millions of people were watching and his influence was very broad. He was reportedly making almost 10 million a year when this happened, which sounds like a lot, but his employers at CBS were actually making $50 million a year off his show. So he had the kind of power you have for making that kind of money also.

Jessica Bennett (12:58):

Right. I imagine even someone like Charlamagne tha God or Joe Rogan would probably be the modern equivalent of that, right?

Susie Banikarim (13:06):

Yes, probably the closest thing we have, but to be honest, it’s just not the same because you still make the choice to listen to those guys in a way that if they were on your radio for four hours a day or on national television four hours a day-

Jessica Bennett (13:18):

And you didn’t have another option.

Susie Banikarim (13:19):

… And you didn’t have as many options as we do now, you would just happen upon them a lot. And because there’s no obvious modern equivalent, I actually called Jemele Hill, who you and I both know. She’s an Emmy award-winning sports journalist, who in 2007 was actually an ESPN columnist and she covered this story as it unfolded.

Jemele Hill (13:38):

Don Imus at the time was considered to be probably the most powerful radio personality in America. He had an enormous, massive platform. So if he says something on that show, it’s not hitting with a whisper. It’s hitting like a thunderclap.

Jessica Bennett (13:55):

That’s like the perfect quote. It’s just making me think back to this team. They’re basically kids. They’re at a school like Rutgers that’s not necessarily a national brand. They’re not in the spotlight in that way and then suddenly like, bam, this guy is weighing in on them and it’s reaching a million listeners.

Susie Banikarim (14:14):

Yeah and Jemele talked about that too.

Jemele Hill (14:16):

These women had just played on the biggest stage in their sport. They had a phenomenal season. They were led by an incredible coach. And so in that moment, even with the disappointment of losing in the Final Four, it was still very much a celebratory achievement for them. And just upon hearing those comments and to see how it went from people celebrating them to them just being degraded in the next moment, it was disheartening to say the least. I just really felt for those young people because they had achieved something really, really spectacular and it just felt like the moment was stolen from them.

Susie Banikarim (14:58):

In a lot of ways, what Jemele is saying is why I wanted to look back at this, this idea of having the moment stolen from them because obviously we were both working in news when this happened, but I remember even at the time, it really struck me how young the team was. It was five freshmen. So we’re talking about genuinely 18 and 19-year-old girls. And as I said, they were a majority black team and these comments just felt so cruel and ugly at the time, and the headlines were so intense, right? It was as if they went from the end of their season, where they should have just been able to enjoy that and chill and finally have a moment to reflect, to being in the hottest spotlight you could possibly be put under.

Jessica Bennett (15:46):

Right. And the hottest news story of that moment.

Susie Banikarim (15:48):

And you and I know that when you get thrust into these really hot spotlights, we’ve worked on these kinds of stories-

Jessica Bennett (15:54):


Susie Banikarim (15:55):

… It can feel like it obliterates everything else in your life and that you’re just completely taking it in from all sides, trying to figure out how to navigate it. So I really wanted to understand that part of the story better. And I reached out to Essence Carson, who is a WNBA superstar. She played for the New York Liberty among others and is now a creative executive, but most relevant for this, she was the captain of the 2007 Rutgers women’s basketball team.

Jessica Bennett (16:23):

I just want to note that Essence Carson is a really big deal.

Susie Banikarim (16:45):

Yeah, she’s obviously had this amazing career and been able to put this in her rear view mirror. She doesn’t actually talk about this very often for obvious reasons. So I was really grateful that she agreed to talk to me, and she said to really understand how deeply these comments cut at the time, you have to go back and understand what the team had gone through just to get to the championships.

Essence Carson (17:05):

Just that group that was at Rutgers in 2007, it was a very unique group. We all come from all walks of life, but we all bought into the idea of that championship and how we weren’t going to allow the lack of experience be the one sole thing that keeps us away from that.

Jessica Bennett (17:25):

You’ve mentioned this a couple of times too, that they were inexperienced.

Susie Banikarim (17:28):

Yeah. The Rutgers team went into the season as underdogs because they were a very young team. There were no seniors.

Jessica Bennett (17:34):


Susie Banikarim (17:34):

They had lost a lot of their really strong players that year before. So it was mostly made up of recent high school graduates now starting at the college level. So the beginning of the season was rough. They were losing games. There was a game early on that they lost by 40 points at home. That was pretty much unheard of at Rutgers.

Essence Carson (17:54):

It was a tough pill to swallow. It was embarrassing. No true competitor ever wants to lose in that fashion, but it happened, and that was the beginning of the wake-up call.

Jessica Bennett (18:08):

Okay, wow. So things were going really poorly, but then they turn it around. What does that?

Susie Banikarim (18:14):

Honestly, it seems like it was just sheer grit. They had an amazing coach, this Hall of Fame coach, Vivian Stringer, who was very famous in women’s college basketball, and Essence told me that she very aggressively pushed them to get their act together, and they did, really coming together as a team.

Essence Carson (18:29):

The road in the beginning was a bit bumpy, but what truly makes a great team is how you overcome adversity. And after overcoming a slow start, we were able to regroup and figure things out leading us to a Big East Championship and onto our historic run in the NCAA tournament.

Susie Banikarim (18:49):

Will you tell me what it felt like going back when you won that last game that meant you were going to the Final Four, and just did that feel amazing? I can’t imagine what that felt like.

Essence Carson (18:58):

I’m not sure if there are any words to describe that feeling, right? Imagine losing everything and getting it back and at that time, winning it all. You know when you’re looking at the Big East Tournament, that was just one step and then it was like, “Oh, we can keep going. We can keep this thing going.” There were just truly no words that can explain that. It was an unreal ride, for sure.

Jessica Bennett (19:24):

That’s interesting. I really hadn’t realized how up and down the season had been for them.

Susie Banikarim (19:29):

Yeah, it really had been a wild season, but sadly, like all good things, it does come to an end. So as I said in the introduction, they go up against this powerful top-seeded team in Tennessee for the championship and they lose, but there’s still a lot to celebrate.

Essence Carson (19:44):

It was definitely bittersweet. Of course, there were tears shed in the locker room after that loss ’cause it was like, “Oh, you were so close. You almost completed the Cinderella story. You were so close.” Of course, those feelings set in, but in the same breath, we were reminded that what we had done was amazing. When we returned to New Jersey, it was almost as if we won. Our fans were so supportive, they were so welcoming. The fanfare was amazing. Even the people at the airport, the firefighters, everyone, the entire state of New Jersey was so proud of us. It was like they went on that ride with us. It was like they climbed from the bottom with us. They wanted to remind us that, “Hey, good job.”

Jessica Bennett (20:33):

I love hearing her describe how they arrive home to this kind of hero’s welcome. But at what point then did they actually hear about these comments?

Susie Banikarim (20:41):

So Essence said she first heard about the comments right after they had a pep rally.

Essence Carson (20:47):

Immediately after it concluded, it was almost like it was still going on a bit until, I don’t remember what we had to do next, because this moment actually kind of just took over everything. I remember coming down and we were on the court and our SID at that time, Stacey Brann, she would handle the publicity, the media requests for the team. She came to me and asked me did I hear what was said or what happened, and I had no clue what she was talking about. And then she gave me what happened blow-by-blow and even had the transcript, and I was blown away by what was said, mainly because I couldn’t fathom anyone being able to say things of that sort live on air. Although I was no stranger to racism and the nuances of it, I didn’t necessarily think it would be possible, and especially towards a group of young women like ourselves.

Susie Banikarim (21:47):

Had you heard of Don Imus when this happened? Did you know who he was?

Essence Carson (21:51):

No. No, but I also don’t think I was his demographic.

Susie Banikarim (21:56):

Do you remember when you actually heard it for the first time?

Essence Carson (21:59):

I think I heard snippets at first. It was being played everywhere, so you would hear snippets. Even if you didn’t want to encounter it, you kind of just did.

Jessica Bennett (22:10):

It’s maybe hard to remember now because we don’t have radios and televisions on all the time and we’re always on our phones, but to describe just how saturated the news was with what she is talking about. Truly, I remember it was on every cable news channel. It was playing on the radio at all times. It was on the cover of the weekly magazines. It was in the paper, and every single article was repeating the comments over and over and over again. So you can just imagine, they get home and suddenly they’re just hit in the face with this statement.

Susie Banikarim (22:42):

Yeah, that really struck me too ’cause it’s just this idea that even if they had wanted to get away from it, they didn’t have that choice. Initially, they tried to ignore his comments. They chose to go home early. It was Easter. So they went home to spend Easter with their families, but they were being bombarded with requests for comment, and also just every time they turned on a TV or walked into a store where the radio was on, it was just being played everywhere.

Jessica Bennett (23:06):

I imagine too, the reporters are camping out at the school trying to get statements. It probably was a very tabloid-esque situation.

Susie Banikarim (23:15):

Yeah. She said they were being accosted even when they were just trying to go to class or go to the cafeteria-

Jessica Bennett (23:20):


Susie Banikarim (23:20):

… But they were trying to see how the story played out before they decided what to do and the story just kept growing. What’s interesting about this is that it was an early example of something going viral. You can imagine if this happened today, it would be all over TikTok and Twitter immediately, but back then, that’s not really how a story grew.

Jessica Bennett (23:41):

Do we know how it initially took off, who noticed that this had occurred and how did it spiral from there?

Susie Banikarim (23:48):

It was actually a guy at Media Matters, which is a left-leaning media group who flagged the clip. He had gotten a tip and he dug it up and he sent it around to their newsletter and then it was posted on YouTube. And YouTube had launched in 2005, so it had just pretty recently become really huge. And for context, in one of the articles I read, they mentioned that it was such a huge story that this YouTube video had gotten a million hits, which is a lot of hits, but today it would get like 10 million hits.

Jessica Bennett (24:18):

Right. Right.

Susie Banikarim (24:19):

So, this might’ve been missed or ignored.

Jessica Bennett (24:22):

That’s so interesting because had this happened even a few years before, yes, he’s got this huge following on radio, but a thing happens on radio and then it’s over. You’re not recording the clip and sending it around.

Susie Banikarim (24:32):

Right, like you’re not with a cassette tape.

Jessica Bennett (24:34):

Right, exactly. So maybe some people would’ve been offended, but it would’ve just disappeared.

Susie Banikarim (24:39):

Yeah, and that’s the world Don Imus really knew, right? He’d been a radio host for a long time pre-internet. So when the internet changed the landscape, I think it was a real shift for him and this was the first time he really came to understand that. And CBS and MSNBC, who were his employers, CBS ran his radio show and MSNBC simulcasted on the air, I think they were both waiting to see if this would blow over-

Jessica Bennett (25:02):


Susie Banikarim (25:03):

…Like the other things he had said because he did have a history of saying really awful things.

Jessica Bennett (25:08):

I guess I’m asking you to repeat all the awful things, but what are some of the awful things? Can you say the ones that aren’t that awful? What are the ones you can say on our air?

Susie Banikarim (25:18):

I can say them carefully, and yes, he and his merry band of idiots just had this horrible history of saying controversial or offensive things, and I literally cannot go over all of them ’cause there’s so many racist and sexist and antisemitic and homophobic things, Islamophobic-

Jessica Bennett (25:36):

Checking all the boxes.

Susie Banikarim (25:37):

Yeah, they checked all the boxes every day as far as I can tell. But the one that really stood out to me is that after the Rutgers slurs, Gwen Ifill, who was this groundbreaking and widely-admired journalist and relevant for this conversation, a black woman, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about how Imus had once said about her when she was a reporter for The Times, “Isn’t the Times wonderful. It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

Jessica Bennett (26:06):


Susie Banikarim (26:07):

Right? It’s just disgusting.

Jessica Bennett (26:08):

He said that to her face?

Susie Banikarim (26:10):

No, he just said it on the air about her.

Jessica Bennett (26:11):

He said it on the air. Oh my God.

Susie Banikarim (26:13):

Yeah. He said it on the air about her, and she said she suspected it was because he had once or twice asked her to be on the air and she just hadn’t had time to go on. So he had held this grudge against her, but it’s just a really terrible way to talk about someone. And I mentioned Howard Stern. Interestingly, Howard Stern and Don Imus did work together briefly in the ’80s and then became bitter rivals. They hated each other for the rest of their careers. And despite his own history of controversy, Howard Stern came forward during this time and said that when they had worked together in the ’80s, he had heard Imus call a black female co-worker the N word, and Robin Quivers, who was one of Stern’s co-hosts, said that he had also called her the N-word to her face when they were working with him.

Jessica Bennett (27:00):


Susie Banikarim (27:01):

And just to put a cap on that, Imus had also called Howard Stern a Jew bastard on the air in 1984 and suggested he should be put in an oven.

Jessica Bennett (27:12):

Wow. What is mind-boggling to me is that this is a man saying these things who then turns around and has all of these really prestigious people on his show.

Susie Banikarim (27:24):

Right, Howard Stern was also controversial, but he didn’t have Senator Biden and McCain on his show, so I think he just didn’t reach this level of scrutiny. Another example that comes out after all this is that in 1998, when Don Imus was doing an interview for 60 Minutes, he told one of the producers off camera that his executive producer was hired to perform N word jokes. And to be clear, he didn’t say the N word, he said the word.

Jessica Bennett (27:52):

None of these cases he’s saying N word.

Susie Banikarim (27:55):

Right, but he’s saying the word.

Jessica Bennett (27:57):

What does that even mean?

Susie Banikarim (27:59):

What it means is that he wants someone making those jokes and so he hired this man to be the racist on the show so he could be a little less racist, I guess.

Jessica Bennett (28:09):

Honestly, it’s shocking that he was still on air.

Susie Banikarim (28:11):

Yeah. 2007 doesn’t feel like that long ago, so it is shocking that he had gotten away with this blatant bigotry for so long, but the internet wasn’t the same as it is now, and Don Imus wasn’t used to being held accountable. So initially, in the day after he makes the comments, he goes on the air and he says he’s heard a few people are upset, but basically everyone needs to calm down because it’s just an idiot comment that was meant to be amusing. But pretty quickly it becomes clear that this time is going to be very different for Don Imus.

Jessica Bennett (28:55):

Susie, before the break, you were giving us a rundown of some of the terrible things that Don Imus has said about various people, but the comments he made about the Rutgers women’s basketball team really weren’t blowing over. So what happened next?

Susie Banikarim (29:08):

Actually, Jemele Hill, who, as I mentioned, was a columnist at ESPN at this time, played a role in making sure the comments were heard pretty broadly.

Jemele Hill (29:18):

It struck me because of his having that kind of platform, and for a lot of his listeners who maybe have never heard about this team or didn’t know anything about them and the very first thing that they hear about is them being called nappy-headed hos. He ridiculed them, he demeaned them, he denigrated them. And as a black woman in sports myself during that time, all of things resonated deeply inside of me. And so I felt like I had to speak out about it and make it known that this crossed so many lines for so many different reasons, from a gender perspective, a racial perspective and I thought it would be a disservice for somebody not to stand up for those women.

Jessica Bennett (30:00):

That’s so interesting what she’s saying in terms of all the different ways that it crossed these lines. How does Jemele make sure that the story gets national attention?

Susie Banikarim (30:08):

Well, what happens is the day after the comments, Jemele hears them and sends them to the e-mail list for the National Association of Black Journalists-

Jessica Bennett (30:19):

Oh, okay.

Susie Banikarim (30:20):

… And then they become really widely circulated among black journalists in general, and by the next day, the NABJ issues a statement saying that they’re outraged and disgusted and they demand an apology, but also they call for him to be immediately fired.

Jessica Bennett (30:37):

That’s so interesting too because with so many of these stories like this, it takes someone in some position of power to really raise the alarm on it. And so having someone like Jemele in a position of power who can then reach out to this whole association of black journalists like her who can put out this statement, goes to show why it matters so much to have media be representative.

Susie Banikarim (31:00):

And she actually explains why she thinks there was more of a reaction this time.

Jemele Hill (31:05):

It was different because we’re talking about college kids and we’re talking about young women, and I think it resonated a little bit differently. Sometimes when you have people like that who constantly say the same things or the same type of destructive things about people, it starts to become a little bit of white noise. Not that it was ever right with the other things that he said, but it was who he picked, he had done it before and there was a track record of him particularly saying and espousing some pretty dangerous tropes about black women. And finally, I think a lot of people said, “Enough is enough.”

Jessica Bennett (31:40):

I think what Jemele is saying about the tropes is such an important point. And I know that she’s going to talk to us about this a bit more later, but I think it’s worth noting that part of what she’s referring to, I presume, is the incessant conversation about black women’s hair texture, on how it has been used against them.

Susie Banikarim (31:58):

Yeah, I think this idea that black women’s natural hair is somehow unkempt or untidy or unclean, that is really a racist trope that black women have had to fight against for a really long time. So he is tapping into something with real historical context.

Jessica Bennett (32:19):

I want to take us back to the timeline. So okay, the team has returned, they’ve gone home for Easter, they are being bombarded by the press. As we just heard, Jemele say, the National Association for Black Journalists has now called for his firing, but Susie, does Don Imus ever finally apologize?

Susie Banikarim (32:37):

He does finally apologize.

Jessica Bennett (32:41):


Susie Banikarim (32:41):

So a few days later when it is obvious that it is not just going to blow over, he issues a formal apology on his show. Here’s what he said.

Clips (32:48):

I want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark we made the other morning referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team. It was completely inappropriate and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, so, and we’re sorry.

Susie Banikarim (33:08):

Clearly a scripted apology, not his usual off-the-cuff remarks.

Jessica Bennett (33:14):

Right, right. Not how you expected Don Imus to issue an apology.

Susie Banikarim (33:18):

Exactly. It obviously wasn’t from the heart. It was clear that he was starting to feel some heat here, but it was too little too late and it did not stop the backlash, and more mainstream press started to pick up the story.

Jessica Bennett (33:32):


Susie Banikarim (33:32):

And significantly, Al Sharpton, who as you know, is a long-time civil rights activist and who has a big media profile, especially at that time, enters the fray and also demands that Imus be fired. He says that he’s happy to accept his apology, but he wants his bosses to accept his resignation as well. So it’s not dying down, and Imus agrees to go on Al Sharpton’s show, who also has a radio show at this time-

Jessica Bennett (33:59):


Susie Banikarim (34:00):

… As sort of a mea culpa and to deny that he’s a racist. And he says that he and his sidekicks were just trying to be funny and that he understands now why it wasn’t funny, but that he was never intending to be racist. I mean, okay-

Jessica Bennett (34:13):


Susie Banikarim (34:15):

… Sure. Yeah. Ultimately though, it starts to get contentious and he makes things much worse because he says, at some point, to Al Sharpton and his black co-host, “I can’t get anywhere with you people.” It’s like if you’re trying to apologize, perhaps you don’t use another widely understood racial trope, which is to call black people you people.

Jessica Bennett (34:38):

You people. Wow. Okay. So I guess my next question then is what are his bosses doing while all of this is going on and he seems to be just digging himself deeper?

Susie Banikarim (34:50):

This is a great question. They are panicking. By all accounts, they are doing meetings with their internal staffs. Black employees are going to NBC bosses to be like, “What the hell?”

Jessica Bennett (35:02):


Susie Banikarim (35:02):

CBS is trying to decide what to do, but remember, they’re making $50 million, so they are very reticent to fire him. So instead, they try to just suspend him for two weeks and hopes that that stops the damage and that is again not well received, no. And now we really see a cascade of media people, sports people, politicians, even Obama.

Jessica Bennett (35:25):

Okay, I was wondering. I had wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to mess up our flow.

Susie Banikarim (35:29):

Great question. So as I said, Obama had been on the show. He was a senator from Illinois at this time. He has already announced he’s running for President and so people are asking about it, and he does also demand that Imus be fired. He says, “He didn’t just cross the line, he fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two daughters are having to deal with today in America,” which does again, really remind you that these are just kids.

Jessica Bennett (35:55):

So is this all happening over days or weeks? What is the timeframe here?

Susie Banikarim (35:59):

It’s really over the course of a week that we get to the apology and then the Sharpton show and all this backlash, and then finally the team decides that they have to respond. They can’t wait any longer because at this point, it’s really becoming untenable for them to just go to class-

Jessica Bennett (36:16):

These students.

Susie Banikarim (36:17):


Jessica Bennett (36:17):

Continue to play basketball.

Susie Banikarim (36:18):

So they decide to do a press conference and here’s Essence again on why they decided to do that.

Essence Carson (36:23):

The press conference. Well, the press conference was seen as the best way to move forward. Why? Because you have a group of young women somewhere in between the ages of 18 and 20 that aren’t only athletes, but they’re students. So when you’re trying to go to class or you’re trying to, I don’t know, go get some lunch at the caf, just basic things, you’re being chased by media outlets, you lose your privacy. And at the end of the day, we like to get our education. So Coach Stringer and the rest of the staff came up with the idea of a press conference ’cause then that way, you can address everyone at one time. So making sure that we were able to get together collectively and take a stand together and control our narrative ’cause it was already spinning out of control.

Susie Banikarim (37:17):

Jess, I think actually this is a pretty good place to end it with Essence having this last word because things are spinning out of control, but the team is about to take control of the situation, and there will be a turning point with this press conference. So please join us next week for part two, and we will tell you all about it.


This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? E-mail us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (37:58):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (38:08):

You can also find this on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (38:17):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeartPodcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (38:31):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (38:48):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.