November 18, 2013

The Sociology of Harassment

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Last year I wrote about pranks and I have received several phone calls over the last two weeks from sports radio folks wanting me to talk about the alarming story coming out of the Miami Dolphins football team. These talk radio guys seem to want to know: “Isn’t a prank just a prank?” The answer has to do with power, institutions, masculinity in sports and, in this case, race.

For those of you who haven’t followed the story, here’s a brief summary: a second-year player named Jonathan Martin walked out of the Dolphins’ football facility on Monday October 28th and left the team. The precipitating incident was when Martin sat down for lunch with his teammates and all of them got up in unison to leave him behind. (Apparently this is a common enough prank with the Dolphins, and the team apparently even did it to their coach, Joe Philbin.)

News quickly spread that another offensive lineman, veteran Richie Incognito, was at once Martin’s closest ally and chief harasser on the team. NBC Sports reported that Incognito sent a subsequent voicemail message, which included racial slurs, threats to kill Martin, and gang rape his sister. In part:

Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of [expletive] . . . I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. [I want to] [expletive] in your [expletive] mouth. [I'm going to] slap your [expletive] mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face (laughter). [Expletive] you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.

With that, Incognito was suspended and then let go due to “conduct detrimental to the team” (a decision he was, as of November 15th, contesting).

Martin is perhaps not a typical football player, and his background was a likely source of ridicule: He is Stanford-educated, and he comes from a family of Harvard alumni. Another article notes that his great-grandfather was one of a handful of African-American scholars at Harvard in the 1920s, and wasn’t allowed to live on campus. Martin didn’t like to party with his teammates, or go to strip clubs. They called him “Big Weirdo.” He didn’t “act” like the others. (For more details to the story, and a decent analysis by ESPN’s Peter King, click here.)

First off, sociologists are interested in groups and group behavior, leading us to ask questions about how people play certain roles within those groups, and how group boundaries are negotiated and maintained. Socialization is how we learn the attitudes, beliefs, and norms of a community. Pranks and a variety of entry ceremonies might be a part of this process.

Hazing rituals, while illegal, are quite common on college fraternities and sororities as a part of their socialization process. In a 2010 study of college students, over half surveyed (55%) reported activities consistent with hazing through “the process of becoming a member or maintaining membership in student organizations, clubs, and teams,” even though 9 out of 10 wouldn’t label their experiences as such.

Harassment is a perennial problem because it is often perceived by some group members as a kind of necessity for group cohesiveness. (Here are figures of race-based harassment over time, tracked by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.’) In any intensive voluntary or involuntary community and you will see that one of the earliest stages of socialization is what sociologists call degradation ceremonies. In knit institutions such as the military, prisons, mental health facilities, or football teams, and you can point to how more powerful people design and implement a variety of activities in order to strip down an initiate’s identity to the barest of bones.

In boot camp new recruits get their hair shaved off (something more senior Dolphins players do to junior players every year), almost all their personal identifiers are banned, they are all given the same clothes, and are told they’re all green, maggots. In prison, inmates are given uniforms and numbers instead of names., Similarly, new fraternity initiates go through intense hazing and christened with a new nickname. Often such activities are used in order to build that person back up again as a new member of the group. Does this sound like it played a part in the Incognito-Martin case?

This is just one of the ways power works in institutions. There is also authority that comes from controlling legitimate avenues of power. In the case of the Dolphins, there is a team Leadership Council where Martin could have raised his concerns, but Incognito was a member of that group, too. Incognito seemingly controlled the official and unofficial avenues of power. What happens when your tormentor is your mentor, when all roads seem to lead to the same place?


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A prank is good once in a while but only if it has good sense and it doesn't turn into harrasment.

I agree. The prank is good but if it's too much and it can hurt people, that will not be a prank anymore.

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