Let's Be Honest About Kobe Bryant

Trigger Warning: Discusses interpersonal violence, r*pe, and homophobia. 

Kobe Bryant was undeniably amazing at basketball. Growing up, everyone shouted “Kobe!” when throwing paper into trash cans as a universal way to commemorate a man held near and dear to millions of fans. Kobe was emblematic of the American dream: if you put your head down, work hard, and never give up, you too can ascend beyond mediocrity. Not only was Kobe Bryant legendary at basketball, he also consistently gave back to the community with the help of his wife, Vanessa Bryant. Their list of supported charities ranges from Stand Up to Cancer to Make-a-Wish Foundation to the Bryants' personal charity: the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. Branching out, the 5-time NBA champion even won an Oscar in 2018 for the animated short, “Dear Basketball." Let’s be clear: Kobe Bryant was talented and inspiring, and probably role model for years to come.

Here’s where things get less cut and dry. Recently, journalist Gayle King interviewed WNBA star Lisa Leslie on “CBS This Morning." While their interview supposedly consisted of a breadth of topics, editors chose to promote the interview by posting a clip of King asking Leslie about discrepancies in Bryant’s legacy. Namely, the alleged rape of a 19-year-old hotel employee on July 1, 2003, by Bryant. King, a journalist doing her journalistic duty, has become the target of hordes of death threats, as well as public condemnation by rapper Snoop Dogg. And for what? For daring to question the “spotless” record of a basketball legend? There’s a fundamental problem with the way we idolize celebrities during their lives and canonize them after they die. And not to be that person, but the main people critiquing King for her honest question are male basketball fans. But here’s the thing: people are not all-good or all-bad all the time. You can be an inspiration to millions, while also having a credible rape allegation on your record.Here is the timeline of the case, which discusses the rape charges brought against Kobe Bryant in detail. Feel free to move to the next paragraph, as this may be triggering to victims of interpersonal violence. 

  • June 30, 2003: Kobe Brant checked into The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, in Edwards, Colorado, in order to have surgery on July 2nd.
  • July 1: The alleged rape occured in Kobe Bryant’s hotel room.
  • July 2: Eagle County Sheriff investigators questioned Bryant. Bryant at first said that no sexual activity occurred. When Bryant was made aware that his semen was recovered, Bryant admitted to consensual sex. When the question of the victim’s bruises around her neck were brought up, Bryant admitted to "consensually" strangling the victim. When asked how consent was given, Bryant said that he assumed consent for sex based off the victim’s body language. 
  • July 4: Arrest warrant was issued, and Byrant was released on $25,000 bail.
  • July 18: Bryant held a news conference, where he denied the rape, but admitted to cheating on his wife.
  • August 2004: Civil lawsuit was filed by the victim against Bryant over the situation. 
  • September 1, 2004: Criminal charges were dropped despite substantial evidence because the victim was unwilling to testify (after receiving multiple death threats due to a leak of her identity). 
  • March 2005: The lawsuit was settled, with the estimated settlement worth more than $2.5 million. The settlement came with the stipulation that Bryant had to make a statement, which was this: “Although I truly believe this encounter 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 she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

Read the statement. Kobe Bryant effectively evaded serious jail time by framing the incident as a misunderstanding, a miscommunication. The facts have been presented to you, and ultimately, you as a consumer of information have to decide what you believe. But let’s take it back to Gayle King for a minute. King, a journalist covering Kobe Bryant’s legacy, asked one question that casts doubt over the idealization of his image. What did King get in return for her dedication to journalistic honesty? Death threats. What did Kobe Bryant’s accuser get in return for her dedication to personal justice? Death threats. When talking to my friend in anticipation of writing this article, she said, “If you think a bad person can never do good things, or a good person can never do bad things, then you negate the actuality of that person.”

My friend has a point. We have a problem in our society where we put on blinders when it comes to people we admire. Anything that interferes with our preconceived notions is a threat to our mental sanctity. It’s far easier to write off critics as attention seekers than it is for us to adjust our mindset. I’m not trying to say that, concretely, Kobe Bryant was a good or bad person. Stratifying people into two categories is inherently problematic, and therefore ineffective. Good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things. Kobe Bryant cheated on his wife, called an NBA ref a homophobic slur in 2011, sued the Japanese city of Kobe in 2010 for naming rights, and quite possibly raped a 19-year-old in 2003. To the average person, these are bad things, bad actions, and bad deeds. But guess what? Kobe Bryant inspired generations of future NBA players, supported underprivileged youth, set up free soccer and basketball camps, and worked with several charities. 

Kobe Bryant’s legacy is complicated. For tons of women affected by interpersonal violence, the idolization of Bryant is a slap in the face. It’s a reminder that your attacker can still hold all the cards, remain untouched by what quite possibly could have destroyed your life. For fans of Kobe Bryant, his idolization is natural and deserved because of his great accomplishments on and off the court. If we truly want to honor the legacy of someone, we have to be honest about their life, the good and the bad. When someone’s life is cherry-picked, avoiding all of the gnarly, nasty events, a false idol is created. If you choose Kobe Bryant as your personal hero, that’s fine. But he’s your personal hero in all aspects, not just his athletic ability. I choose Gayle King, a woman who was unafraid to ask the tough questions, when it would have been so much easier to stay silent. 

The legacy of Kobe Bryant is going to be a case-study for our society. Will we remember the man with perpetuity and candor, honestly discussing the cyclical violence against and subjugation of women? Will we have frank conversations about the normalization of homophobic language in sports? Or will we just remember Kobe Bryant as one of the greatest basketball players of all time? To quote Oscar Wilde, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”