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"Kobe Bryant and Social Status" - Richard Ellefritz, Ph.D. | November 2020

Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of the Bahamas

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When analyzing the social world and because, either for very personal reasons or due to societal pressures, we humans select the questions to ask, the facts to answer those questions, the theories to make sense of those facts, and draw conclusions from those bases, subjectivity is something you — we — will never shake-off. This should indicate to you that you might consider mastering your subjectivity by interrogating which facts, ideas, beliefs, myths, and legends you subscribe to that might not only be false in themselves but lead you to formulate erroneous conclusions about cases you have not fully and exhaustively investigated. None of the material below is meant to be an attack on Mr. Kobe Bryant or you; the point of this essay is to help develop your sociological imagination. We can do this by analyzing the intersections between biography, history, and social structure, but also by realizing that our own interpretations are not all that personal. Being members of a society means that we have been and continue to be socialized within social institutions and groups that help shape our understanding of the world around us. This article is meant to foster and develop the sociological imagination by analyzing sociology in the prevailing news stories of our time.

The front pages of newspapers are reserved for the stories that editors believe will garner the most attention, and thus produce the most sales. The January 27, 2020 edition of USA Today, like many other newspapers, do on any given day, packed so much information onto the front page that it would have been easy to miss the forest for the trees. For sociologists, the “trees,” or the individual elements we study (e.g., a human, a group, an organization, or the front page of a news text), are important, but it is their collective relationship and interdependence with other elements that we are more often interested in studying (unless we are doing a case study). So, while perusing the front page of a newspaper, we might be interested in the top headline, but considering all the stories, not to mention the ongoing social and cultural climate of society more broadly, is key to a sociological analysis. Take, for instance, that on the front page of the USA Today edition mentioned above were all of the following headlines: “Poll shows Biden leads a volatile race in Iowa,” “Rush is on to develop a vaccine for coronavirus”, and “State ‘purges’ of voters raise alarms”. All three stories have carried significant weight into the remaining months of 2020, likely impacting society for years to come. While we benefit from hindsight in knowing their relevance for today, the major headline at the top of that edition took precedent as the most important story of the day. It relayed to readers the tragic loss of a celebrated athlete, Kobe Bryant (August 23, 1978 – January 26, 2020). 

Kobe Bryant, like any individual, noted for their occupational status, was much more than an athlete. A basketball star celebrated for his talent and success, for sure, as indicated in the headline, Mr. Bryant was also a father whose 13-year-old daughter tragically perished in the fateful helicopter crash. Mr. Bryant had many other social statuses, too: According to his biography, Mr. Bryant was a son, brother, husband, friend to many, Catholic, musical artist, television celebrity, author, Academy Award winner, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and also an accused rapist. On social media, many people mourned Kobe Bryant, and used hashtags such as #KobeBryant, #KobeandGianna, #KobeBryantDeath, #RememberingKobeBryant, #RIPKobeBryant, and #KobeFarewell; however, other used hashtags such as #KobeBryantRapist and #KobeRapist. When noting above the many statuses Mr. Bryant held throughout his life, a sociologist would simply use the term status set to indicate that we are thinking about the totality of accumulated positions that one holds within the social structure of society, and we always assume there is some amount of prestige, regard, or esteem relative to other statuses of the individual and within society generally. Depending on social circumstances, one status typically becomes a master status due to it overriding the relative value of others. For some, Kobe Bryant’s celebrity status as a star basketball player acted as his master status, but for others his overriding social character was his being an alleged rapist. Why do people sometimes have such starkly contrasting views, and how do we know who is correct or whom to believe?

Sociologically, much of people’s knowledge, many of our beliefs, and almost all of our values come from socialization and culture, which are two of our basic explanatory factors for most social behaviors. This means that our perspectives or worldviews are also shaped by those same social forces. Think about two statuses, a basketball player and a hotel employee, and consider the different stocks of knowledge any individual in those positions would need to do their jobs. They are not likely to overlap much. Occupational statuses are achieved, but not all statuses are attained, earned, sought out, or acquired intentionally. For example, according to Mr. Bryant, he did not intentionally engage in sexual assault, though he did admit that he understood why his accuser ultimately bestowed the label of rapist upon him. Mr. Bryant publicly admitted the following: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” However, he was never convicted, did not pay a fine, nor did he serve any jail time. So, maybe this suggests he was innocent all along. But, should we not #BelieveAllWomen? Wealthy and famous celebrities exert much influence, power, and authority in the social world that permits them to engage in and/or getaway with behaviors that people of more modest means and less notoriety. Take the point of view of the accuser for just an instant: Do you believe she made up these allegations as a pathway to her fame and fortune? If so, engage in some introspection to find out why and how, exactly, you formulated that question instead of one that allowed her the dignity of being a credible accuser.

Theoretically, a sociologist might wonder if Mr. Bryant’s status as an accused rapist is an achieved or an ascribed status? The answer is not all that clear. Unlike achieved statuses, some statuses are ascribed, such as age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. Some of these, to be sure, can be achieved or attained, such as when one converts to a new or different religion, transitions to a different gender, has a sex change operation, or decides that they will celebrate their 40th birthday several years in a row. For this situation, can you set aside your personal and social prejudices to objectively analyze the situation? What social forces might have seeped into your consciousness to shape the ways you think and feel about it, one way or another? Is it even possible to objectively analyze Kobe Bryant’s situation, let alone anybody else’s, and if so, how exactly would we go about that? Science would be one way to go: What types of data could you collect, and how can you analyze that data to produce an objective analysis that uncovers what has truly occurred? Maybe this isn’t possible, and maybe it isn’t necessary. 

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. Why do people sometimes have such starkly contrasting views, and how do we know who is correct or whom to believe?
  2. What types of data could you collect, and how can you analyze that data to produce an objective analysis that uncovers what has truly occurred?

About the Author

Richard G. Ellefritz, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor of sociology at the University of The Bahamas. He completed his Ph.D. in sociology at Oklahoma State University in 2014, where he stayed on as a visiting scholar until taking his current position in 2017. His scholarly interests and publications are in the areas of pedagogy, popular culture, social movements, and political and economic sociology. He has done consulting work with McGraw-Hill since 2013 as a Digital Faculty Consultant, textbook reviewer, blog author, and in-house advisor.