Kobe Bryant and Complicated Legacies

On the inconvenient women who make matters worse

Kobe Bryant, you have probably heard, died in a helicopter crash today, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and several other people who have not yet been identified. It’s a terrible, heartbreaking tragedy, another reminder that even those who seem iconic are not invincible. It’s all the more tragic that a little girl lost her life. There is such an outpouring of grief for Kobe — as there should be — and I know we are all also thinking of that little girl and her mom and her sisters. What an absolute heartbreak.

I’m not a basketball fan, nor a Kobe fan, but I understand the irrational impact a celebrity death can have on even a distant admirer. We live in what feels like an increasingly cynical culture. That there is something about the young, beautiful, talented and famous that still thrills us is less a sign that we’re shallow and more that we’re still optimistic, still capable of being awed. Kobe was a young man, one of the greatest athletes in the world, someone whose beauty and grace and power on the court was, even for total amateurs like me, still so very obvious and so very stunning. He was only 41, a father, a son, a husband, a friend — outside of his celebrity, he was a person, known and beloved by other people. They are grieving today, and my heart hurts for them.

And also.

You know the and also, don’t you? That Kobe Bryant raped a woman? I know, I know, it was not proven in a court of law. I know, I know, they settled the case, she got a payout — but not before having her real identity splashed all over the tabloids and radio, being hounded by Kobe’s most vicious fans, seeing her whole life crack apart, being tarred as that kind of woman trying to take down such a good, talented, admirable man.

My heart hurt for her then. It hurts for her now.

This is still a developing story. But as of now, the New York Times makes no mention of her, or the fact that being accused of rape was one of the defining moments of Kobe Bryant’s public life. Yes, Kobe and his legal team made the problem go away, but I would bet all of my cats that every single writer and editor covering this knew about the rape, thought of it almost immediately upon seeing this news, and still made a conscious choices to either leave it out or play it down. The Times write-up is pure hagiography: Kobe’s draft into the NBA right out of high school, his MVP wins, his international basketball career, his commitment to the game, his final triumphs, his academy award, his upcoming NBA Hall of Fame gig, his fans’ grief.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that Kobe “will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes.” The LA Times did include three sentences about the rape accusation, but in the context of a feud between Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal — the rape case is simply a final straw, exacerbating more important intra-male problems. “Making matters worse,” the article says, after detailing the Kobe/Shaq tensions, “Bryant was arrested in July 2003 on allegations of sexual assault.” Kobe’s reputation, the paper notes, took a hit — and then the story moves on. O’Neal was traded. Kobe became the de facto leader of the Lakers, its solo alpha male. He scored so many points. He made so much money. There are so many details about exactly how many points, and where, and when, and why it mattered.

This is all key to Kobe’s story. And also, it is not the whole story. Out of some mislaid definition of “respect,” we are so excellent at sidelining the inconvenient parts, at least when the inconvenient parts are women we’ve made invisible and the one inconvenienced is a man we would prefer to keep admiring, without complication.

The inconvenient part of Kobe’s story, the part that made matters worse, was 19, still a teenager, a “woman” in the technical sense of the term only. She worked at a hotel where Kobe stayed. She was excited to meet him, and so she worked late that night. He asked for a tour of the hotel, and she agreed. She gave him the tour, and ended up in his room; she said she was going to leave, and he asked her to stay. He kissed her, and she kissed him back. Then, she says, he started to take off his pants, and she pulled away and tried to leave. That was when she says he choked her, groped her, and eventually raped her (the Daily Beast tells this story in greater detail).

Kobe initially told the police nothing happened. Then when the police told him they had blood and semen evidence, he said, well ok, something did happen, but it was consensual.

The woman had a bruise on her neck. She had genital injuries and vaginal tears consistent with trauma. Her underwear and a t-shirt of Kobe’s were stained with her blood.

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 young woman — the teenager — stopped cooperating. She shrunk away and settled out of court. I don’t know where she is now, and I hope you don’t either. She has earned, at the very least, her privacy.

It’s uncomfortable to raise the worst thing someone has ever done when that someone dies, and when they are beloved. And I suppose it matters that I write this as someone who thinks that very, very few of us are all good or all bad; few of us are saintly, even fewer irredeemable. We can admire aspects of a person’s talent without erasing the ways in which they also did irreparable damage. We can be horrified and angry by what someone did without writing them off as worthless, without seeing them go away — to jail, to the grave — and saying “good riddance.” We can — we must — assess the ways in which the rich and famous are able to exploit our admiration of their talents to pound into the ground anyone who might threaten their fame and reputation, how they so often bypass accountability and we just let them because, well, they’re so talented, or so attractive, or their politics line up with ours, or they handle a ball so well.

We like to think of celebrity-watching as an escape from real life, but it’s more of a mirror. The way we bestow celebrity reflects what we value; so too does where and how and why we deem celebrities good or bad or admirable or deplorable. The Kobe Bryant rape cases reflected something very ugly back at us. The fact that we just don’t know what to do with that information upon his death shows that yes, we have changed — at least editors and anchors and reporters and commentators are wringing their hands about how to deal with this, at least there is that nagging voice that says oh fuck we have to deal with this. But we are still very much in flux. We still don’t know how to tell human stories when a human’s life ends, only hero’s journeys or villains’ defeats. A lot of people want Kobe to be an uncomplicated luminary, a great man without inconvenient addendums, and yet here is the inconvenient shadow of a female form darkening the background, making matters worse.

Maybe matters should be made worse.

Maybe the stories we tell about our culture’s most resonant figures should strive to be true, for better or worse.

Maybe the reason we care about Kobe Bryant dying is because Kobe Bryant’s life was never just about Kobe Bryant, but about all of the aspirations and values we pinned onto him, and it is for exactly that reason that there is no disrespect or invasion of privacy in insisting that the inconvenient parts live alongside the admirable ones, that the ugly is neighbor to the exquisite.

There is no shame in grieving the end of a human life; it is good to feel, especially for the people who knew and loved the person who died. No matter how painful or complicated a person’s legacy, considering their death with softness and grace calls on us to draw from the best parts of ourselves.

That same work of compassion also calls on us to remember that no person is an island. All of our lives leave ripples. Some lives are tsunamis. Compassion is not summarizing the beauty of the wave; it’s picking through the wreckage, reckoning with who was hurt. Awe without honesty isn’t respect; it’s myth. Admiration of only the easy parts is fanaticism, not reverence.

What we admire is so overwhelmingly male, so much of the time. And as a result, what we are willing to set aside, what we deem inconvenient, the worse-makers of more important male matters, is overwhelmingly female. If we want our heroes to be better men, and if we want more of our heroes to be women, and if perhaps we want a world in which our stories are more honest than the framework of heroes and villains allows, well — we have to start by telling the whole truth.

xx Jill