I experienced the disbelief and fascination in real time Sunday January 26, 2020 (my birthday) as my friends and I walked into Catawba Brewery on the South Slope in Asheville, NC. The place was eerily quiet; soon our smartphones alerted us that Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter accident.
Strangers made eye contact and talked about their shock as if we all had somehow magically been linked because we know of Bryant, because he is a celebrity.
I followed along on Twitter as the story became more garbled and disturbing. Five dead became nine, and Bryant’s daughter along with some of her teammates were identified.
Bryant is recently retired from an elite NBA career. He is too young and too well-known, it seems, for such a tragic end to his life. While the story tended to be either “Kobe Bryant and others” or “Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and others,” I sensed we all were also mourning the entirety of a senseless loss of life.
When it was revealed his daughter was on board, I felt the pain rise in my chest; I had to resist crying.
But I also immediately recognized Bryant’s death was presenting something more than a challenge about how outsized interest in celebrities exists in the U.S. Yes, some quickly noted that the attention afforded Bryant was absent when military deaths were reported—or the hundreds of lives lost daily across the U.S. due to other tragedies left mostly ignored.
But Bryant’s life and death are far more complicated than even that. Jeremy Gordon confronted it directly in his coverage for The Outline:
The facts are not up for interpretation: On June 30, 2003, at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Eagle, Colorado, Kobe invited a 19-year-old employee of the spa into his room after she’d shown him around the facility. They began kissing consensually, but when he took off his pants, she tried to leave. He then groped her, ignored her multiple requests to leave, choked her hard enough to leave bruises on her neck, physically blocked her from leaving the room, ignored more of her requests to stop, and forcibly penetrated her, only stopping when she aggressively resisted. “Every time I said no he tightened his hold around me,” she told police. The day after, a nurse observed the woman and, according to a detective from the sheriff’s office, “stated that the injuries were consistent with penetrating genital trauma. That it’s not consistent with consensual sex.”
Gordon later explains:
I don’t recap this exhaustively to be one of those smarmy people who, in the immediate wake of his death, leapt out of the woodwork to smugly assert “Uh, he was a bad person” to anyone who expresses sadness, but to point out the simple fact that Kobe committed sexual assault — which he literally admitted, in front of the entire country — and any exhaustive recapping of his life should include and reckon with this instead of basically mentioning it as an aside.
Jill Filipovic focused as well on the double assault experienced by the woman victimized by Bryant and then the effort to exonerate him:
The full weight of Kobe Bryant’s money, power and influence came down on this teenager. His lawyers suggested she was sexually promiscuous — I have no idea if that’s true, or even how we define a value-laden term like “promiscuous,” but either way, the number of sexual partners someone has had doesn’t determine whether or not they were raped by one particular person (I would also humbly suggest that someone who has had a lot of consensual sex without making false rape claims has pretty well demonstrated a history of being able to have consensual sex without making false rape claims). They emphasized how excited she was to meet Bryant. They brought up her history with depression and suicide attempts, casting her as a crazy person, a woman not to be trusted. Bryant’s lead defense attorney, Pamela Mackey — the optics of a female lawyer defending an accused rapist are just so irresistible, which is why we see Harvey Weinstein doing the same thing — used the woman’s name six times in the preliminary hearing; she brought up the number of recent sexual partners the woman had. One psychology professor studied the coverage of the case and found that more than 40 percent of news stories questioned the truthfulness of the woman’s account; only 7.7 percent questioned Kobe’s honesty. About a quarter included positive comments about his athletic career; more than 20 percent included positive comments about him as a person. By contrast, only 5 percent of news articles had anything positive to say about the woman.
The Bryant assault and his eventual rehabilitation in the media as a sports hero and celebrity were well before the #MeToo movement. Certainly, Bryant benefited from his celebrity shield over those years.
His death, however, as Filipovic’s mentioning Weinstein denotes, comes in the wake of #MeToo, demanding that greater care is taken with Bryant’s legacy than was afforded in the time after the rape.
The eulogies for Bryant overwhelmingly address his elite stature as an NBA superstar as well as his relationship with his daughter and family as evidence of his much more mature and gracious public self after his retirement from the NBA in 2016. Notably, international accounts tend to include immediately references to Bryant’s sexual assault, but U.S. media seem content with occasional token references to the incident, usually offered by a female reporter (see ESPN).
The helicopter crash that claimed Bryant’s life is tragic, including, of course, the loss of eight additional lives. Despite his celebrity, however, these deaths are no more or less significant than other deaths—some we acknowledge, some we ignore.
What we do with Bryant’s legacy is extremely important. At the very least, his death and the facts of his sexual assault raise important questions.
The first level of those questions is for every single man to interrogate his role in rape culture, sexual assault, sexual coercion, the male gaze, sexist and misogynistic language, and sexism.
Some men are deeply guilty, but all men are culpable, complicit to some degree in these realities for all women. Men must admit their roles, but they must also take action against the ways in which men devalue the humanity of women.
At another level, we all need to rethink the celebrity shield. Men of wealth and celebrity in the U.S. may not be disproportionately sexually abusive, but they certainly are shielded from the consequences when they do assault, when they do discriminate.
A final level that I think is significant in considering Bryant involves how we judge any person in the big picture of their life.
I wrote a biography for my doctoral dissertation so much of my research in grad school involved scholarship on biography and reading a large number of biographies.
Simply put, exploring the full and exposed life of almost anyone will leave you greatly disappointed in someone you may have admired or considered “great.”
In Bryant’s case, we may argue that the sexual assault was a one-time but tremendous mistake, one that irrevocably changed the life of a woman beyond her control, and that Bryant’s exceptional athletic accomplishments and seemingly good life otherwise can counter that incident so that we should mostly celebrate him after his death.
Or, as I am prone to accept, Bryant’s one-time assault cannot be excused because of his efforts to deny and hide it, and the inexcusable treatment the woman experienced in his efforts to seem innocent; celebrity and athletic excellence cannot justify the immediate physical and emotional harm he caused or his self-serving callousness in its wake.
The irony of Bryant’s celebrity shield is that his life and death against his sexual assault shine a direct light on all of us. He can no longer influence his legacy with his wealth or celebrity.
It is upon us to value the humanity of women in all circumstances, regardless of how much we may value any man or the celebrity status we have afforded him.
Often, people will raise concern about false reports of sexual assault and rape. However, research shows the following:
The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases….
A review of research finds that the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 percent and 10 percent.