Culturally, we identify with conflicted literary heroes like Severus Snape and Jamie Lannister. We understand their indiscretions arise out of the complexities of personal back stories–wounds, families–all the experiences which, considered together, create dynamic identities.
However, we hold our real life heroes to higher standards. Perhaps, this is why, when a celebrated athlete or revered comedian is embroiled in criminal scandal, we either choose to blame the victim(s), justifying abhorrent behavior, or villify the perpetrator, denying the merits of said individual’s contribution to his field.
For example, Bill Cosby, convicted of aggravated indecent assault, is presently serving time behind bars. For his victims, justice has been served; meanwhile, fans are divided. How do I morally and ethically live with myself if I honor the work of a reprobate man?
When I saw the news that Kobe Bryant died–it was plastered all over social media, accompanied by heartfelt condolences–I genuinely felt conflicted. I knew he was a basketball legend, and his contributions to the game should be remembered and revered, yet I was troubled by all of the press, censoring that bit of his biography wherein he raped a young woman back in 2003. I understand that with his untimely death, it is important to honor his legacy and to extend sympathy and compassion to his surviving family. However, the diminishing and deletion of this aspect of his life feels altogether irresponsible.
Yes, that chapter of Kobe’s life occurred seventeen years ago. Time heals all wounds, and it is wonderful that he was able to sublimate his experience and use it all to propel his career forward. People can change, and there have never arisen any further allegations against Kobe Bryant for deviant behavior. It seems, minus that little blip on the radar, as though Kobe was a model athlete, husband and father. Nevertheless, that event did occur. The evidence gathered by the police indicated wrongdoing, and justice was never served.
On top of that, the victim suffered not only the trauma of the rape itself, but also the trauma of ridicule from a public who could not handle confrontation with Kobe Bryant’s dark side. It was only by her mercy that the case did not go to trial, and no one has credited or lauded this nameless woman for Kobe’s ensuing success. The only mention of this incident (in the initial articles to surface after his death) has been to call into question this woman’s story–to deny her trauma–to cast the deceased in the best light possible.
This is why I think it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of esteemed idols and pop icons. The fact that Kobe Bryant raped a woman does not detract from any of the amazing things he did for basketball, for youth sports, and for his community. The fact that Kobe Bryant raped a woman does draw attention to colossal socio-cultural dysfunction. The fact that in the wake of his death, so many people chose to disavow that part of his story, likewise, undermines what little social progress that’s been made in the wake of #metoo and other awareness initiatives. Kobe Bryant didn’t rape a woman because he was a horrible human. He raped a woman because he enacted a set of beliefs about women and his relationship to women, which have prevailed in our nation since its existence–which have prevailed on the earth, since man first evolved.
Kobe seemingly redeemed his reputation after the events of 2003. However, he never admitted wrong-doing. He never publicly accepted responsibility for his false beliefs or their consequential fallout.
Not every rapist is a pervert. Many men rape women, not because they are inherently evil or perverse but because they believe they are entitled to the pleasure they can extract from female sex organs. Were a public figure like Kobe Bryant to speak openly and repentantly about his experience, reflecting on the wrong beliefs that led to deviant behavior, this would be an example to young men the world over–it would bring awareness to the thinking that propels the behavior that leads to the victimization of our girls. Yes, his pride would take a blow. Yes, his image would take a blow, but better that than the resulting propagation of negative attitudes towards women from his failure to accept responsibility for all.
Now that he is gone, those reporting on his life–those honoring his legacy– are responsible to start the conversation he failed to initiate. This can be done with grace. We can say, “Kobe Bryant was a hero. Kobe Bryant made an enormous mistake, and what can we learn from that?” How can we mold a new generation of athletes, musicians, producers, actors, entertainment icons–who re-think their beliefs, who reflect on their actions with penitent and compassionate hearts?
We must evaluate the whole.
We must start the conversation.