Bryant was a basketball legend, but we need to remain honest about his life
Hassan Merali // Contributor
Warning: this article contains references to sexual assault that may trigger trauma. If you need support, please go to Student Affairs (LB 116) or Counselling Services (BR212).
Although Kobe Bryant was my favourite player growing up, I stopped idolizing him a long time ago but when he died in January I was affected a lot more than I thought I’d be. Perhaps the fact that I’d just lost my grandfather made it harder. Maybe it was the nostalgia of my family living in LA when Kobe and the Lakers won their third championship in a row. Maybe it was because shortly after my dad passed away playing basketball, the sport we both loved, I had to watch our favourite team lose in the finals to the Pistons. Maybe it was because I spent so much time arguing with my friend Connor about who got to be the Lakers when we played NBA 2K, or that we’d both yell “Kobe!” after making a shot when we played in my driveway. I messaged Connor immediately after the news of Kobe’s death and we began recalling memories we’d shared of a man we had never met but felt we knew: the impossible fade-away jumpers, the legendary work-ethic and competitiveness, his famous game-winning buzzer-beaters. We reminisced about watching Kobe’s final game, when he closed out his legendary career by racking up a ridiculous 60 points at 37 years old. As we recounted our fond memories of Kobe, I told my friend about what had been bugging me since I heard the news.
Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2003, and as Robyn Doolittle recounted in the 2019 Globe and Mail article “This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like,” the case was emblematic of how horribly reports of sexualized violence are treated in the courts of law and public opinion. The media cast doubt on the accuser’s character while portraying Kobe as deserving of compassion. Staff at the courthouse “accidentally” released details of the woman’s sexual history to the press, and her name and photo were leaked and published. Kobe’s legal team suggested that her having sex with another man close to the incident was the reason for her vaginal lacerations, even though her blood was found on Kobe’s shirt. The prosecution only dropped the case because his accuser decided not to testify after all of the death threats and hate mail. Kobe put out a statement apologizing for the ordeal she’d been through without an admission of guilt, saying that although he believed the encounter was consensual, “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did… I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” He lost some sponsors, but after the case faded away, his reputation recovered and his sponsorships flourished in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The sadness I felt about Kobe dying, was immediately followed by guilt, shame, and dissonance. The slut-shaming, the unfounded suspicion toward the accuser, the reckless attitudes of courthouse employees, the sympathetic press coverage toward the accused, and the character assassination are, as Doolittle points out, emblematic of the rape culture that prevents justice for survivors of sexualized violence. So many thoughts started to run through my head: How can I remember this man fondly when he abused his power this way? How must this woman feel about the whole world mourning her rapist and singing his praises? I’ve openly identified as a feminist my entire life, proud to be a male ally. I’m the longest-serving member of our school’s consent education campaign and I’m proud of the work I do alongside the incredible women who run the campaign. I literally teach workshops about how rape culture perpetuates toxic gender norms that themselves perpetuate sexualized violence. How can I do that while feeling bad about the death of a man like Kobe Bryant? Am I just a big fucking hypocrite? When I read that Kobe died, I thought about wearing his jersey to school the next day, but decided against it after realizing I’d volunteered to help out at the consent campaign’s booth at an event. How could I continue to preach about consent after I texted my friend, “RIP Kobe Bean Bryant”?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I know I shouldn’t mourn a man that almost certainly sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman, and definitely used his power to drag her through the mud when she tried to pursue justice. Yet, I couldn’t help watching highlights from his illustrious 20-year career before sitting down to write this article. Part of me wants to hold on to the good memories I had that involved Kobe: watching and playing basketball with friends and family. Can I hold onto those without deifying him? Can I feel bad for his wife, who just lost her husband and 13-year-old daughter, and his accuser at the same time? I’m not certain about how I should feel. The only things I know for certain are that his legacy is complicated, and Kobe Bryant is as polarizing in death as he was in life.