I have been thinking a lot about Kobe Bryant’s passing on Sunday and the responses it has garnered on social media and in the news. I think it is important that we remember Bryant’s impressive accomplishments as an athlete as well as his sexual assault case from 2003. In particular, we need to unpack why we pay so much less attention to this latter part of his legacy.
Kobe Bryant’s death was tragic — no one should die in that manner or at so young an age. He was clearly an inspiring figure for innumerable Americans and an example of the achievements that persistent hard work and passion can bring about. He was also clearly a rapist. That last fact seems forgotten or downright ignored as he is glorified in private tribute posts and news articles as a “hero” and “role model.” In fairness, many of these people may not be aware of his crime. But notably, many of the journalists who are aware have granted only a single line or a short paragraph to his rape case, using words like “controversy,” “alleged” and “accused,” which suggest his assault may not have actually happened, despite the fact that the evidence is unambiguous and he admitted to the crime in court.
I worry about the message this coverage sends to survivors of sexual assault. Personally, I got the message that his crimes do not matter as much as his successes. That his record on the basketball court is more important to remember and discuss than is the night he changed the course of a young woman’s life in horrifying ways. I am a survivor, and receiving that message hurt.
To be clear, I do not take issue with anyone’s expression of their grief — perpetrators are human beings, too. They have families and friends and fans who have every right to mourn their passing. I take issue with worship and homage that omit the truth: He raped a woman, he only begrudgingly admitted it, and later he spoke of it as a way to advertise his Black Mamba persona. Those are not actions worthy of worship.
I have spent a long time considering whether the sexual crimes committed by athletes, artists, writers, comedians, classmates or friends should outweigh their accomplishments and positive contributions. I still don’t have an answer. My instinct is to say there is no one answer. To impose a categorical standard onto the weight of sexual assault is to ignore the nuanced and long-term consequences of sexual assault for survivors and their communities. But one thing we can do is make sure we do not memorialize someone’s truly exceptional successes at the expense of acknowledging their truly unacceptable actions.
Some may think I am callous to insist on remembering Bryant’s misdeeds while a significant portion of the American public is in the throes of mourning him. But I am trying to respond to a culture that is more apt to think, as writer Jeremy Gordon phrased it in his Jan. 27 article in The Outline, “What’s the private pain of one anonymous person against the public joy of millions?” The silencing of survivors is at the core of rape culture, and I don’t want to participate in it.
I spent the last year reading survivors’ stories for my thesis. One thing I have learned is that to believe a survivor’s story means to believe a story about their perpetrator, too. Part of believing is integrating that information into our narratives of who the perpetrator is and refusing to let that information be subsumed by more palatable or inspiring facts. It is important we take the opportunity to do so now with Kobe Bryant, even as we mourn his tragic death and send our genuine best wishes to his family.
Alessandra Miranda ’20 is a statistics and English major from Salt Lake City, Utah.