Rutgers's associate director of athletic communications, decided to check her
e-mail one last time before she went to bed. It was about 10:30 p.m. on
Wednesday, April 4, Brann's first night back in her New Brunswick, N.J.,
apartment since the Scarlet Knights' improbable run through the women's NCAA
basketball tournament had ended 24 hours earlier, with a 59--46 loss to
Tennessee in the championship game. As she scrolled through the messages on her
BlackBerry, Brann came to one from David Miller, a fan who regularly forwards
Rutgers-related clips to athletic department staffers.
had no heading or comment. It consisted simply of the transcript of the now
infamous exchange on Don Imus's radio show that morning in which Imus and two
of his cronies, Bernard McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg, cruelly mocked the Scarlet
Knights, with Imus referring to the Rutgers players as "nappy-headed
hos" and "rough girls" with tattoos and to Tennessee's players as
"cute." McGuirk described the game as "the Jigaboos versus the
Wannabes." Brann forwarded the e-mail to deputy athletic director Kevin
MacConnell with the tag, "This is ridiculous," and went to sleep, never
thinking that the words she had just read would plunge the Scarlet Knights into
a maelstrom of media coverage and a nationwide race and gender debate. "For
10 days it seemed like we weren't in control of our own lives," says junior
guard Essence Carson. "It was like we were paper dolls."
The next morning
the team gathered to take part in one of Rutgers's most revered rituals, the
ringing of the Old Queens Bell. Knowing the media might question them about
Imus, Brann told the players, "A man on the radio made some horrible
comments." Then she herded them onto the bus that would take them to the
ceremony and handed a printout of the radio transcript to junior point guard
Matee Ajavon. Ajavon is known for cracking up her teammates with her
impersonations and funny voices, but that morning, as she read the transcript
aloud and without inflection, there was only silence.
None of the
players knew who Imus was, and, obviously, he didn't know them. "[His
comments were] so personal," says sophomore center Kia Vaughn. "It
wasn't like we were the only ones on the floor that night, yet he had singled
us out. It hurt so much." Later on Thursday a university spokesman released
a statement condemning Imus's comments, and after coach C. Vivian Stringer and
her team attended a campus rally that night to celebrate their season with
about 2,000 people, including New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, on hand,
Stringer told the players to put the matter out of their minds for the weekend.
But then, says Stringer, "it took on legs of its own."
the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton expressing outrage, Rutgers had
become The Story. After the team dispersed on Friday for Easter weekend, the
press sought them out and hounded them. "It was absurd," says guard
Brittany Ray. On her first weekend back home in the Bronx since Christmas, her
family's phone rang constantly. So did the one at freshman guard Epiphanny
Prince's apartment in Brooklyn, and when Prince tried to escape to an AAU
basketball tournament, eagle-eyed newspaper reporters located her. Freshman
guard Dee Dee Jernigan lost her single mother to breast cancer last spring and
doesn't have a permanent home address, yet reporters still tracked her down in
Chicago. A CNN producer chased junior guard Katie Adams by instant messenger.
By Sunday night Sharpton and the National Organization for Women had called for
Imus's firing, and by Monday morning Stringer knew she had to talk to her team
about the storm swirling around them.
Seven of the
players were back on campus on Monday morning; Stringer pulled them out of
study hall, and freshman forward Myia McCurdy joined the meeting midway
through. The eight players crowded into the coach's office and squeezed onto
her two small red leather couches; McCurdy and sophomore forward Heather Zurich
sat on the floor. Stringer had each player describe her weekend and say what
she thought the team should do in response to Imus's comments and the media
furor. It was a tearful meeting, with Zurich and Katie Adams, the two white
players, crying the most, according to Carson. Someone from Imus's show had
called athletic director Bob Mulcahy on Saturday, saying Imus wanted to meet
with the Scarlet Knights. Imus himself called Rutgers president Richard L.
McCormick on Sunday. Stringer asked her players if they were interested in
addressing the press or talking to Imus, and they unanimously voted to do
"There was no
debate," Carson says. "Sure, part of it was 'How can we get the media
off our back?'" But the larger reason for agreeing to the meeting was that
"we decided we didn't have anything to lose by speaking [out]."
Knights emerged from Stringer's office, stretching their legs and smiling a
little, hopeful that they had finally gained some control over their situation.
Prince left first, waving goodbye to Brann on her way out of the office. But
seconds later she was back, shouting, "Stacey, Stacey, there are cameras
everywhere!" A media relations staffer escorted Prince to class through the
media horde. Another sneaked several players out a back entrance of the RAC,
and Carson spent the day trying to outrun microphones. "I wanted to ask,
'Why are you chasing 18- and 19-year-old girls around?'" she says. "It
was mentally and physically exhausting."
With their news
conference set for the next day, nearly all of the Scarlet Knights spent part
of Monday researching Imus on Google. He may have talked about them without
knowing them, but they wouldn't do the same to him. By the time they addressed
the press on Tuesday—reading statements they had written themselves—they were
focused and prepared. The players were universally applauded for being eloquent
and dignified, especially Carson, who had stepped into the role of Rutgers's de
facto spokesperson. A music major who plays four instruments, she usually
dislikes the spotlight; her career aspiration is to work behind the scenes as a
Stringer and Carson made the rounds of the morning news shows while some of the
Scarlet Knights were trying not to be overwhelmed by the attention they were
getting. McCurdy, considered the shyest woman on the team, was sitting in
Brann's office when she answered her cellphone and went mute, mouthing,
"It's Al Sharpton!" before handing the phone to Brann. By last
Thursday, when the entire team taped a segment for Oprah, the Scarlet
Knights—whose accomplishments on the court had gotten little media
coverage—were thoroughly sick of celebrity. "Annoying, that's what it
is," Vaughn said. "Everyone's around now when the times are bad."
Ray, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, was almost as irritated by the intrusion
into her routine as by the insults Imus had spewed. "It took away from the
time we need to study," she said Saturday. "I wanted to get back to my