Shock jock Don Imus' ill-conceived crack about the "nappy-headed hos" playing for the Rutgers women's basketball team has been universally derided as racist and sexist.
Judging from the vigorous defense of the players and the visceral rejection of Imus, the insult struck a deeper chord than most insensitivities bandied about the airwaves. Yesterday, after team members faced the media to tell how the slur angered and hurt them, that sentiment seemed to grow.
Dana Dabek-Milstein, with the Alice Paul Institute in Mount Laurel, said Imus' attempted humor plays into a culture that values a woman's appearance over her accomplishments.
"That's one of the reasons Imus' comments were so hurtful," she said. "Girls are valued not for what they do or say, but how they look."
And Imus certainly couldn't have picked a more undeserving target.
Not only are the players talented athletes who came within a game of an improbable national championship, but they are college students - young women barely out of high school, in some cases.
"The problem here is these kids are scarred. I know people are going to say, 'Oh, come on.' But they're scarred," said State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington). "I know they're in their late teens and early 20s. They're still impressionable. You're not 100 percent sure of yourself at that age."
The number of people and organizations who have come to the players' defense has grown steadily since Imus made his comments last week.
Mary S. Hartman, director of Rutgers' Institute for Women's Leadership, said that's because Imus picked on the wrong team.
"I can't say I was shocked that he would say something outrageous, but I was shocked that he would pick on these targets," she said. "I am not a basketball fan, but I am a fan of talented women."
With the team's nationally televised news conference yesterday, the responses seemed only to increase - Trenton politicians, Philadelphia mayoral candidates, even Pat Summitt, coach of the Tennessee team that defeated Rutgers in the national championship, all weighed in yesterday with comments, calling the aggrieved women "role models" and "heroes."
A number of rallies and events also have been planned, including a demonstration today at Douglass College, the women's college of Rutgers, to call for Imus to be fired.
Many supporters of the team said the players validated their praise yesterday when they faced the media.
"To have this experience of being the butt of these totally off-the-wall comments was devastating," Hartman said. "The young women on the team showed tremendous class in their responses, and I trust there will be some silver lining."
On the Rutgers campus, the controversy has been front-page news in the student paper, the Daily Targum, and a topic of discussion in classrooms. Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick sent a mass e-mail to students this week, telling them to support the team.
"Rutgers has maintained its dignity throughout all of this," German professor Eric Downing said. "This is only reflected poorly on the man who said those things."
Students could sympathize with the players, who still have to manage the demands of school through the Imus controversy.
"This can't have been a pleasant experience for the girls," said Garrett Broad, a junior. "The comments are one thing, but the frenzy surrounding it is another. They're just students, and they've been traveling to games for the past month. This was supposed to be their time to take it easy before exams."
Broad also praised the team's coach, C. Vivian Stringer, who also spoke at yesterday's news conference.
"She is a great speaker, and she takes care of those kids. She's a mother to them," he said. "If there was one coach that Imus didn't want to mess with, it's Coach Stringer."
The team has agreed to accept Imus' offer of a meeting, and the players were set to meet with him at an undisclosed location. Imus also will be suspended from his radio program for two weeks.
"He was talking about young people who are still in school," said Andrew Orlando, a Rutgers junior from South Brunswick. "I wouldn't complain if he was fired, but if Coach Stringer thinks that's enough, then that's fine."
Sen. Allen said Imus' comments, along with everything else, were ill-timed, coming so soon after the team had brought so much positive attention to the university and the state.
"Everybody I know is talking about this. This is huge," she said. "We're angry about it. In a way, it touches all of us."