THE BLOG
12/02/2013 02:01 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2014

Martin Case Is Textbook Stereotyping

Investigators continue to pursue the facts in the NFL harassment case in Miami. But a recent survey by Seton Hall University shows a majority of respondents believe bullying is pervasive in sports. I too believe that enough is known about the Dolphins' locker room environment -- and most likely the environment on every NFL team-that we can say that the incident clearly exposes a complex set of ingrained cultural beliefs regarding gender, race and sexuality.

Such beliefs have not only seeped into all types of institutions, but they also affect how we view events and they definitely impede social change.

In my research into the paradoxical place of gender, race and sexuality in the United States, Britain and Australia, I have found that we are misguided by the visceral and emotional far more than we often realize. Although it is undoubtedly the case that feelings can be instructive, calling attention to otherwise ignored aspects of our experience, but they are also plagued by contradiction, paradox and ambivalence and thus they are rarely as transparent or 'right' as they might at first appear.

Misguided individuals and misguided societal reactions can be found everywhere-among not only athletes, but also actors, comedians, politicians, teachers and the person on the street.

Jonathan Martin's case grates because his gender, race, size and occupation grate against our preconceived notions. Many ask, why didn't Martin simply punch Incognito?

Black men in our racist society are viewed as perpetrators, not victims, and as psychologists have shown often feared by whites. Such views make the idea of a black male being bullied unfathomable. It is counter to our stereotypical image of black athletes to think that one would confront bullying.

Similarly, there are problematic beliefs about gender that saturate our society and the beliefs have come to feel normal and so right.

For example, among the threatening messages Martin received, according to the Orlando Sentinel, was one that read: "We are going to run train on your sister." Although the full context of this message was not given, it is important to note was how the threat of a gang "running train" -- a metaphor for what many would term gang rape -- emerged, possibly even just slipped out, under pressure.

The threat suggests that Martin got judged as "weak" and "feminine" when he made his teammates behaviors public. This "feminization" occurred not only among his teammates who left abusive and threatening messages, but, often unwittingly, in news coverage where we read refrains of "this is a man's sport."

Martin's case illuminates how problematic the dominant assumptions of racism and sexism are. Moreover, his case raises a host of important questions about bullying and how it can be understood. It is impossible to understand the motivations of the person who left the message, but I think the fact that such an image was used likely reflects how, when under pressure, individuals often revert to anxieties about female sexuality and racial difference.

It has been noted by individuals close to the case that the actions of the accused could not be about racism because men of color supported Incognito. But there also are black and white men who have not supported Incognito's behavior.

Too often, cruel or unkind behavior is guided by cultural beliefs about race and gender. We humans are complicated, and we can be pushed by rage, irrational fears, and hatred. Cultural context is so powerful that it has been found that the types of delusions and hallucinations suffered by individuals during psychotic breaks speak to particular historical and cultural developments.

Reducing these events to simply being cases of bad individuals or a bad group, or social networking or bad parenting frees us from culpability and of culture change. This is why it is such an attractive option. And although it may help temporarily ameliorate the anger that gets sparked in the face of these cases -- it does not go far enough because it does not deal with the cultural sentiments that make such practices seem normal, or in the acceptable enough, in the first place. It does not help us come to terms with what resides just below the surface our society.

Institutions that condone the fomenting of these feelings and projections, implicitly or explicitly, instead of dealing with them head-on, compound the problem.

When people commit acts of physical or verbal violence some type of sanction must take place at the individual and institutional level. We cannot simply chalk it up to bad individuals, a bad group or even bad parenting. As a society, we must do better.

The good news is that the Miami Dophins organization seems to recognize that this sort of incident is a cultural problem, even if they don't quite realize how deeply held such misconceptions truly are.

The NFL might be the perfect vehicle to lead this nation in "de-naturalizing" visceral reactions around race, gender and sexuality. Education at many levels should emphasize the problems of sexual violence, sexual harassment, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. Instead of turning a blind eye to racism, sexism and sexual assault-institutions that create innovative preventive and proactive response plans should be recognized and rewarded.

We also need more conversations about these topics in every corner of our society. Being a man, even a man who plays football, does not require the repudiation of others to prove one's manhood. If we face our cultural attachment to such thinking and feeling, we can finally move past them.

R. Danielle Egan, professor of gender and sexuality studies at St. Lawrence University, Canton, N.Y. and a psychoanalytic candidate at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. She is the author of Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of Girls and Sexualization (Amazon and at Polity Press).