Boy, did Don Imus pick on the wrong females.

The strongest - and in the end perhaps most damaging - rebuke to the radio host's casual racism last week was the dignified deportment of the victims yesterday.

The Rutgers University women's basketball team, which Imus had called "nappy-headed hos" on the air last Wednesday, came across, to a player, as thoughtful, well-spoken and disciplined in front of the cameras in Piscataway, N.J.

As media conferences go, this was an emotional highlight reel. An authentic TV moment.

By responding with such poise to the firestorm ignited on Imus in the Morning, the players and their coach, C. Vivian Stringer, dispelled racial stereotypes far more effectively than the angry cacophony of talking heads elsewhere on TV.

The event amplified the national debate over whether Imus' punishment, a two-week suspension that will begin Monday, fits his crime. On this score, opinions yesterday varied, frequently by race.

To many, the popular white radio host should be fired, not suspended, for his racial slurs, heard on CBS Radio and simulcast on MSNBC one day after Rutgers lost to Tennessee in the NCAA final.

To others, the suspension was sufficiently severe for the 66-year-old host's verbal offense.

It would be easy to assume blacks are in the first category and whites in the second, but it would not be accurate.

PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, for example, an African American once described as "a cleaning woman" by Imus, is infuriated by his remarks and mea culpas, but won't go so far as to demand his removal.

"Should he be fired? That's not my job. That's MSNBC's job. That's WFAN's [Imus' CBS-owned New York base] job," says Ifill, senior correspondent on Jim Lehrer's NewsHour.

"I'll take him at his word that he's not a racist."

Many, including NBC, disagree. In its statement, the network labeled Imus' comments "racist" and "abhorrent" and put him on notice.

Some whites agree with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Al Roker of NBC's Today, among other high-profile blacks, that Imus should be fired.

"From my perspective, what Imus has done is a very grave ethical and professional failure," says Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"The pressure from the outside is greater and from more fronts than it ever has been before. The nature of his offense is at a high-threshold level. . . . I wouldn't be surprised if he's gone."

Robert Lichter, president of Washington's Center for Media and Public Affairs, would go a step further.

"In principle, I'd like to rid the world of Imuses and Howard Sterns, based on the fact that they thrive on driving the culture down and pulling us into the sinkhole.

"This was just one more tug on the endless race to the bottom."

Lichter, who is white, says CBS Radio and MSNBC are in no hurry to let Imus go because he brings in the Benjamins. Suspending him gives management time to take the public's temperature.

Ultimately, it's an economic decision, Lichter says. "Do you keep the profits and handle the flak, or cut him loose and be on the side of the angels? Usually, it's an easy choice. The first."

National Public Radio's Michel Martin, an African American, agrees.

"They're testing the waters. Strategically, it's obvious what they're doing. They're buying him time to see whether they can quell the fire. That's all this is."

To Martin, the saddest aspect of the Imus saga "is that the white-male media establishment has redoubled its efforts to protect its own. I find that incredible."

Such Imus regulars as Democratic political consultant James Carville and Republican Sen. John McCain, a presidential candidate, have said they will continue to do his 5:30-to-9 a.m. show.

In fact, Carville is part of today's all-white, all-boys lineup, with fellow Democratic strategist Paul Begala, The Sopranos' Steve Schirippa, and MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle.

Imus has a thing for media types. On the network front, NBC's Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, and CBS's Bob Schieffer are regulars. None returned e-mail or calls seeking comment yesterday.

Poynter's Steele says "it's a serious mistake" for journalists to appear on Imus' show, because the act itself "condones his racist, homophobic humor. It's a journalistic, ethical failure on our part."

Fair point, says CBS analyst Jeff Greenfield, a longtime Imus buddy who practically conducted an on-air therapy session with the host yesterday.

"It was probably a mistake not to have called him on some of that stuff. . . . Somebody should have pulled him aside and said: 'You're really over line. You're heading for trouble.' "

Still, Imus "is not in a million years a racist," Greenfield says. For Sharpton to be the arbiter of whether Imus' comments are racially inflammatory "proves that God has a sense of humor," he adds.

Given that Imus' show is part political salon and part locker room, his suspension is sufficient punishment, Greenfield says.

"The idea that his future is in jeopardy if he crosses this line again is a significant sanction. Unlike in the past, no one is laughing this one off."

Especially politicians. Greenfield says the real test of Imus' radioactivity will be whether presidential candidates - white or black - appear on the show. (President Bill Clinton did; Hillary Clinton has not.)

Such an appearance could alienate a significant portion of African American as well as white voters, Greenfield says.

One of those African American voters, former CBS morning anchor Rene Syler, doesn't expect l'affair Imus to simmer down any time soon.

"People are very upset and angry, and with good reason," she says. "It's hard to think this will just blow over."

Particularly after yesterday's news conference, from which the Scarlet Knights emerged as champions.

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or