Let’s Talk About How We’re Talking About Kobe Bryant’s Death

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

7 mins read

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Trigger warning: this newsletter contains references to sexual assault.

On Sunday, when I heard that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, my first reaction was disbelief—a literal, “That’s not possible,” as if my brain forgot for a second that famous people are just as vulnerable to accidents and tragedies as the rest of us.

My next thought was, “Oh, shit.” As in, “Oh shit, we are all about to have some difficult conversations.”

Things were going to get tough because Kobe Bryant was a giant in the world of basketball—a five-time NBA champion, an All Star for 18 consecutive years, a two-time NBA Finals MVP winner and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. The man even won an Academy Award for best animated short film for his 2017 film Dear Basketball.

And because he wasn’t just important to basketball fans. He was important to Black people (and other people of colour) in general, both as an example of Black excellence who had zero interest in making himself small so others could feel more comfortable, and as a philanthropist whose focus was on uplifting people of colour.

And also because, in 2003, he was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment after a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado hotel said he raped her. (The case never went to trial; a week before it was meant to start, the woman decided not to testify, leading prosecutors to drop the charges.)

The word complicated has been used a lot in coverage of Kobe’s death, and honestly? It really is.

There is no denying his status as a sports icon; for many people, he was basketball. The manner of his death, and the fact that his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others also passed away, is simply tragic. At the same time, as a feminist who completely believes in holding powerful men to account, there’s no denying the darker parts of his legacy. And only thinking about one of those angles, or believing that some of those facts are more valid than others, is a sign of privilege.

Along with the memories of his talent, drive and the good he has done, we need to admit that he was credibly accused of rape by a young woman in 2003, and that he faced no real long-term consequences, for two reasons. First, because while it can be painful and triggering for survivors of sexual trauma to see someone who has been accused of assault in the past become the subject of adulation and adoration after they die, publicly acknowledging their actions is one way to hold space for those survivors. It’s also necessary if we’re ever going to dismantle rape culture. Otherwise, we’re upholding that problematic thinking in the most fundamental way—by acting as if it doesn’t matter when a man we love or admire assaults someone with less power than him.

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about who we’ve centred, and who is being ignored in this conversation. It seemed like some white feminists were only interested in talking about Kobe’s death in the context of the rape allegations against him, but this dismisses the legitimate pain of Black people who are grieving someone they felt they really knew. I have no problems with talking about these types of allegations, even if the person has passed away. But it’s not unfeminist to sympathize with those who are grieving Kobe, or to recognize his significant contributions to his sport and community. (That being said, none of this justifies the abuse being piled on the women who have dared to post their opinions on the internet. Trolls are sending them death threats, rape threats and other poisonous harassment and it is unequivocally unacceptable.)

Still, it doesn’t serve anyone to flatten Kobe into a hero or a villain. Part of the reason we talk about these types of allegations is to dismantle old-fashioned ideas about what rapists are like; it’s important to highlight the fact that talented, successful, nice people can, and do, assault people.

And what are we actually hoping to accomplish when we talk about these allegations, anyway? It can’t just be modelling our progressiveness or dunking on people who we think aren’t as informed as we are. Instead, we should be having these conversations in the hopes of changing that behaviour, if not in Kobe Bryant, then in the millions of young men who looked up to him.

Bitch magazine editor-in-chief Evette Dionne put it really well, first in a tweet thread and then in an op-ed for Time. “When we’re wedded to specific narratives of how feminists should act, it can be all too easy to disregard humanity. But feminism, at least the tradition I follow, makes space for redemption too,” she writes. “Only Bryant’s accuser can decide if she forgives him, and it’s not our place to do that work publicly on her behalf. What we can do is complicate these conversations so we can usher in more honesty about who’s elevated in the aftermath of a sexual assault and how fame and money insulate perpetrators from being brought to account. We can do this while still acknowledging that Bryant didn’t deserve to die in such a manner at such an age and that the people who loved him are grieving.”

It seemed that Kobe had at least begun to grapple with his actions. He didn’t admit to raping his accuser, as I’ve seen some progressive women claim. But he did appear to understand the harm he caused. As Daily Beast senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern explained in a 2016 article about the sexual assault allegations, “[Kobe’s accuser] agreed to the dismissal of the sexual-assault charge against him provided the athlete issued [an] apology to his accuser, which was read in court by Bryant’s attorney. [It said in part,] ‘Although I truly believe this encounter between us 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 how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.’”

That goes a lot further than any other public apology that I can think of. Of course, maybe that statement was spin, crafted by lawyers and in no way representative of his actual feelings. But he did go on to advocate for female athletes, perhaps more than any other male athlete of his stature; he repeatedly talked about how proud he was to be a “girl dad” and didn’t subscribe to patriarchal ideas about needing a son to carry on his legacy; he became a source of not just inspiration but also real support for younger generations of ball players; he donated time and money to organizations that uplift Black communities in America and abroad.

Sure, our first reactions aren’t always the most nuanced. But if thinking about Kobe’s death is not complicated for you, it’s worth pondering why.

And did you hear about…

That batshit Am I The Asshole post in which I’m pretty sure a woman’s husband and father-in-law are planning to kill her

Terry Crews going out of his way not to support Gabrielle Union after her exit from America’s Got Talent

Dinosaurs in Love

This super smart piece in The Atlantic about KitchenAid stand mixers, millennials and the performance of domesticity

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