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There is no joy in this. The Rutgers women’s basketball team isn’t throwing a parade and most observers on the sidelines hardly feel the need to jump up and cheer.


CBS did the right thing Thursday when it fired Don Imus, just as MSNBC took the moral high road one day earlier by canceling the simulcast of Imus’ WFAN radio show following his repugnant comments about the looks and virtue of the Scarlet Knights. So why does it feel as if we’ve all been put in a vice-grip and emerged with a giant headache?


Maybe because it’s forced us to ask the hard questions, like what’s on our iPods? Can 50 Cent stay? How about Eminem? Most important, what sort of slippery slope are we navigating when we attempt to censor offensive words rather than ignore them?


Before anyone starts bemoaning the death of the First Amendment, let’s remember the government didn’t come knocking on Imus’ front door. He wasn’t led away in chains after calling the Rutgers team “nappy-headed ho’s.” Companies like General Motors, Procter & Gamble and American Express simply decided they didn’t want to be associated with a program that filled the public airwaves with vicious slurs, and thus pulled their advertising. The networks, in tune with society’s disgust, followed suit.


The marketplace spoke. Capitalism won.


Of course it’s not quite that simple. The sordid affair is ripe with paradox. Just as Imus and his sycophantic supporters keep screaming that Imus is a good man who said a bad thing, a man who raises millions for charity and even has black friends, the suits who canned him face their own come-to-Jesus moment. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, CBS’ parent company, orchestrated the move to sever ties between Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise’s production company last year because, as Redstone told Vanity Fair, Cruise “was embarrassing the studio. And he was costing us a lot of money.” It’s fair to substitute Cruise, a matinee idol who went a bit wacky, with Imus, a shock jock who has a sordid history of spewing racist and sexist garbage and a Rolodex of influential friends.


CBS/Viacom enables the worst kind of daytime smut in the form of videos on MTV and BET, where rappers routinely debase and demean women and women routinely allow themselves to be treated as sub-humans. In a statement announcing Imus’ firing, CBS president Leslie Moonves said, “In our meetings with concerned groups, there has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society.”


Really? Who knew? We owe Imus a pat on the back before the door slams on his 10-gallon Stetson. CBS and other media monoliths now must prove they aren’t the ugliest of hypocrites by cleaning up their own houses.


The comments made by Imus and his sleazy producer, Bernie McGuirk, are not mitigated by the lyrics heard on some rap CDs. It is possible to separate the two issues, to recognize Imus and crew are responsible for soiling the privilege that comes with having a national platform on public airwaves. It is also not the worst thing that a two-minute racist and sexist rant about college athletes who had done nothing but honor themselves and their school has merged into one raucous dialogue about community standards, about who can say what and when.


We can call Snoop Dogg a misogynistic fool when he says “rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the `hood that ain’t doing (bleep), that’s trying to get a (bleep) for his money.” We can roll our eyes at ESPN wordsmith Stuart Scott when he says the word ho - short for whore - is meant “in an affectionate way.”


We can pay attention when Sen. Barack Obama, the first presidential hopeful to call for Imus’ dismissal, says, “There’s nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group. He didn’t just cross the line, he fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America.”


Or we can follow the lead of the Rutgers players and their inestimable coach C. Vivian Stringer who, despite the predictable backlash from folks who’d rather their women be silent and nonthreatening, continue to march the sidelines with dignity and grace. Not once did they scream for Imus’ unruly head, instead only asking for a face-to-face meeting so he might see them as accomplished athletes and not sexualized objects.


If the players use hyperbole to describe the damage Imus has done, if they talk about him stealing their dreams or leaving scars on their storybook season, so what? They are learning an invaluable lesson about the power of words. If they haven’t used a platform they never wanted to lecture others about race relations, can we at least give them props for standing up for what they believe? They are flexing their voices, however they see fit. The community bully pulpit isn’t just for bullies anymore.

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