Can we talk? The Imus story is helping

If the Don Imus story leads to a productive debate about hip-hop lyrics, it will be as useful as the Pete Rose, Len Bias and O.J. Simpson sagas were, writes Richard Lapchick.

Updated: April 18, 2007, 1:04 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

We might finally be approaching the end of the story about Don Imus and the obscene, vulgar, racist and sexist language he used on the air to describe the women's basketball team at Rutgers University. It's fitting that Imus was removed from both MSNBC and CBS, and it's good that coach C. Vivian Stringer's team is being recognized as a classy, intelligent group of outstanding student-athletes.

Another good might have come out of this, too, in that it seems to have helped us open a more far-ranging discussion about the lyrics of hip-hop music, which sometimes denigrate and objectify women. Oprah devoted two hours to the topic. For a week now, CNN has been airing comments comparing rap lyrics with what Imus said. Op-ed pages in newspapers around the country have carried many commentaries. There have been debates on the issue in our classrooms in the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida, and I imagine that is happening on many other campuses as well.

Some hip-hop artists create music that is eloquent and empowering. Some manage that even while they also use lyrics that might be objectionable. Ludacris, for example, has recorded a touching, positive song called "Runaway Love" that deals with the lost children of troubled parents, but also lists among his credits a song called "Hoes in My Room." And it should also be pointed out that lyrics in other popular musical genres don't always point listeners in directions that society in general might deem productive.

But for years, most commentators have been afraid to touch the language in the lyrics, including the use of words such as "hos," in hip-hop music, videos and contemporary film. Now, thanks to Imus, we can't avoid the discussion any longer. The debate is wide-open for the first time since hip-hop became popular nearly 25 years ago and adds poignancy to Byron Hurt's film, "Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhythms." That film courageously exposes the imagery and language used about women that makes them really look like "hos." One scene in the film shows a man swiping his credit card through a nearly naked woman's rear end. One woman interviewed in the film told Hurt, "It is true that these women appear not to resist it. What I would hope, however, is that these women understand the extent to which these women are participating in a culture which commodifies women sexually." Hurt is trying to eliminate the racial and sexual images that have long perpetuated such stereotypes in our society.

If the discussion on hip-hop leads to changes in those lyrics and images, then it will follow in the tradition of other sports stories that have helped to open discussions about controversial subjects and issues in our society.

One example: In the early 1970s, America was among a handful of countries that still had economic, cultural and sports contacts with South Africa. An international boycott of sport in that nation had long since taken apartheid South Africa out of the Olympic Games and kept its contacts with most countries around the globe to a minimum regarding other individual sports.

Because the United States had full diplomatic, economic, cultural and sporting relations with South Africa, the apartheid government often was portrayed in the U.S. media as pro-American, democratic, Christian and anti-communist. Officially, the U.S. government did nothing to try to stop those sports contacts. I was the national chairperson of a group that led the grassroots U.S. boycott for more than 20 years. When we started, the media rarely reported about the realities of apartheid, which strangled the economic, social and political lives for the 81 percent of South Africans who were people of color. Partly because we pushed to get stories about the boycott onto the nation's sports pages, more people became aware of the realities of life in South Africa.

I was blessed to be one of the guests Nelson Mandela invited to his inauguration in 1994. After the inauguration, he left Pretoria, ignoring a number of diplomatic parties being held in his honor. Instead, he flew to Johannesburg to watch a Zambia-South Africa soccer match. I sat with him in his box and asked, "President Mandela, with all of the people who wanted you at all the diplomatic parties in Pretoria, why did you come here?"

His response was simple.

"I wanted to be here at this sports event," he said, "so my people know that I recognize that democracy came to South Africa and I became its president much more quickly as a result of the sports boycott of South Africa and the way that it spread the news around the globe about the horrors of apartheid. Now we are free."

In that case, sports stories had a positive impact on society.

In 1986, many Americans considered cocaine to be a "recreational" drug, a regular part of the culture in many parts of the country. But on the night of the NBA draft, as he celebrated his future with the Boston Celtics, Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. That was part of the impetus for the most intense anti-drug campaign in the history of American public health.

Until Pete Rose was thrown out of baseball, many people knew little about gambling in America. The Rose story helped increase the awareness of the nearly 8 million Americans who, according to the Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions, suffer from serious gambling problems that affect their families, careers and financial well-being.

When Arthur Ashe contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and Magic Johnson contracted HIV from a heterosexual encounter, the news enabled government health officials to mount a huge campaign to educate the public that AIDS and HIV affect more than gay men and intravenous drug users.

Finally, as the O.J. Simpson story broke in 1994, the subject of domestic violence came to the attention of the public in an unprecedented way. Two years earlier, organizations for which I worked (Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and the National Consortium for Academics and Sport) had started a program called Mentors in Violence Prevention to help confront what we knew to be an epidemic in our society of men's violence against women. The program had been created to go to colleges to train people to be active bystanders in preventing domestic violence on campus and in society at large.

In the program's early stages, we found that few people were welcoming us on their campus because there was a fear that our presence would somehow be an admission that such problems existed. But in the wake of the O.J. case, the requests poured in. Partly as a result of the media coverage, our MVP Program has gone to more than 150 campuses in the past 12 years and is used by the U.S. Marine Corps to train noncommissioned officers worldwide. It has been adopted by the entire Southeastern Conference.

Now, many people across the country outside the hip-hop world are paying attention to that music genre's lyrics. Imus' choice of words ("nappy-headed hos") contained both racial and sexual slander against the women on the Rutgers team. I think his targeting those 10 smart, talented and articulate student-athletes had much to do with the strong reaction that ended with his dismissal. Imus said in his defense that he picked the phrase up from the culture of hip-hop and thus thought it was acceptable.

Imus got fired. But what should happen to Snoop Dogg and other rappers who use such offensive language? Here is a sample of his lyrics, some of which we have to edit to be able to use on ESPN.com to make a point:

Two in the mornin and the partys still jumpin
Cause my momma aint home
I got b------ in the living room gettin it on
And, they aint leavin til six in the mornin (six in the mornin)
So what you wanna do, s---
I got a pocket full of rubbers and my homeboys do too
So turn off the lights and close the doors
But (but what) we dont love them hos, yeah!
So we gonna smoke a ounce to this
Gs up, hos down, while you motherf------ bounce to this

Snoop Dogg told MTV that rappers aim their lyrics at "hos in the hood," not at collegiate athletes. Explanations such as that might have gotten Snoop off the hook at some point, but they aren't holding up so well in the wake of the Imus story. It is as if Snoop is saying the Rutgers women are "good girls who have made it to college" but isn't changing his tune about the majority of African-American girls who will not gain entrance into college and will remain in the hood as "hos." It's similar to white people saying that someone is an "exception" rather than what they really think of when they think of black people. Shock jock hosts such as Imus and rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Ludacris are using racist, sexist stereotypes and making them out to be hip cultural perspectives.

Finally now, we are addressing the ways in which an ignorant white man, as well as rap singers, use these images in their language, their lyrics and their videos. Another negative sports story might have helped us better address what we needed to confront a long time ago.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com