Sometimes you find grace where you least expect it. Such was the case in the reaction of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. This was a team that came from nowhere to contend for the national championship. They ended up losing to mighty Tennessee a perennial champion, but the Scarlet Knights may have ended up gaining a greater victory: pride over prejudice. That victory came in their response to the racially insensitive insults that shock-jock Don Imus hurled at them in the wake of their defeat. He berated them for being less than feminine and looking like prostitutes. He said he was being funny; the team thought otherwise.
Essence Carson, the team captain, said, that the remarks have “stolen a moment of pure grace from us.” Her first reaction was to ignore what Imus had said, but changed her mind “when we read the transcript, [and] decided it was unacceptable.” Coach C. Vivian Stringer said, “For 25 years, I wanted to come to a championship game, happy, and now this.” How the Rutgers team fought back is a lesson in how to maintain your dignity and for that reason it is instructive.
Be calm. The team waited nearly a week to respond. And when they did, they showed dignity, poise, and yes much grace. As their coach said, “Let me put a human face on it. These young ladies are valedictories of their classes, future doctors, musical prodigies, and yes, even Girl Scouts. They are all young ladies of class. They are distinctive, articulate.” No vitriol here, just a quiet resolve.
State your case. Captain Carson put it bluntly,“[W]e’d just like to express our great hurt, the sadness that [Imus] has brought us.” Simple, direct and honest.
Get the powerful on your side. “The Rutgers Scarlet Knights women’s basketball team,” said Governor Jon Corzine, “embodies all that is great about New Jersey: intelligence, toughness, tenacity, leadership, and most of all, class.” By elevating what could be a spat into an issue about community’s views on racial inequality calls attention to a touchy issue that could benefit from fresh views. [By cruel coincidence, Corzine was seriously injured in an automobile accident en route to the meeting between the team and Imus.]
Move forward. The Rutgers team agreed to meet with Imus. “We just hope to come to some type of understanding of what the remarks really entailed, his reasons why they were said,” said Essence Carson. Befitting their sense of grace, the team told the media that it had accepted the apology from Imus. Coach Stringer even found it within herself to say something nice about the man who had insulted her team. “It would sadden me for anyone to lose their job. [Imus] came [to the team] in spite of the fact that he lost his job So let’s give him credit for that.”
None of the graceful steps the Rutgers team took will work in all occasions. Sometimes you must fight fire with fire. The 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign is a lesson is how to defend yourself when you are being attacked. When someone challenges you, challenge back. It’s a tactic that some politicians seeking national office have employed to varying degrees of success.
Take the high road when you can, but do not let an attack go unanswered. For those of us in the corporate world that means when we hear that someone is attacking our ideas, we get aggressive. Not in anger, but in action. We defend our case with the facts even restating what we said and making it more clear. More corporate battles have been lost through whisper and innuendo than frontal assaults.
But aside from corporate shenanigans, what the women of Rutgers have taught us is good stuff. But you get the feeling that these young ladies really could care less about Imus. They have their lives to lead. More basketball for some, more higher education for all, and most of all, more pride in their accomplishments – on and off the court!
Quotes are drawn from a Rutgers team 4.10.07 press conference and reported by the Robert Strauss “Rutgers Women Send Imus an Angry Message” New York Times 4.10.07 and in “Advertisers pull sponsorship of Imus’s show” CNN.com4.11.07; in addition “Rutgers coach says Imus’ apology accepted” CNN.com 4.13.07