A Lesson in Civility: Our Women's Basketball Team Reacts to Intolerance

Richard L. McCormick, President
As published in the Spring 2007 issue of Rutgers Magazine

One of our student-athletes summed up the impact of the racist and sexist remarks uttered on the Imus in the Morning national radio program last month by saying, “It’s more than a game of basketball. It’s more than the Rutgers women’s basketball team . . . It’s about women across the world, across this nation . . . You don’t get too many opportunities to finally stand up for what is right.”

What is the right way to react to words of intolerance? As children we were told, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But epithets targeted at individuals do hurt. They not only injure the victims but also can corrode our sense of decency and respect when they are either ignored or treated as merely harmless words.

Our society gained a valuable lesson in civility and reasoned discourse from the way Coach C. Vivian Stringer and the 10 young women of the Scarlet Knights basketball team conducted themselves in reacting to the repugnant remarks. Never did they respond with insult or malice. Not once did they call for anyone to be fired. Instead, they sought a positive outcome by agreeing to meet privately to discuss the words that were said. After a very positive dialogue in which Mr. Imus apologized directly and the team members expressed the hurt that his remarks caused, the team formally accepted his apology.

No one can predict the long-term impact of these events. But we can hope that they bring positive change in the way people treat one another. We can hope that both in public and in private we think before we speak and choose words that show respect for human dignity. We can hope that through education and civil discourse we recognize that diversity in our university, our nation, and our world is a strength to be celebrated. We can encourage public dialogue and debate that allow for disagreement without denigrating another person’s character.

The episode never involved the issue of First Amendment rights. Indeed, a university should always encourage the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints. But while we should not restrict anyone’s freedom of speech, that doesn’t mean we can remain silent in the face of intolerance.

Our women’s team and their coach showed the world what is possible when you have self-respect and respect for others, when you engage in honest dialogue, and when you focus on the greater good. Their incredible postseason run, including a first-ever Big East tournament championship against the University of Connecticut, a thrilling victory over top-ranked Duke, and the program’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA championship game, was a moment of triumph and pride for them and the university. The dignity they showed in the controversy that followed makes us prouder still.