Just over a week ago, Kobe Bryant died in a horrific helicopter accident. The world at large seems to shake and social media ‘in memoriams’ are plentiful. Justin Bieber recalls how Kobe ‘always encouraged’ him. Trump calls him ‘truly great’. Kendall Jenner’s grief ‘makes [her] feel more human than ever’. The Grammy awards, taking place just hours after the news broke, honored him with billboards and speeches. You’d be forgiven for believing this man, celebrated as a dedicated father of four and a sporting icon, is in essence, an angel. Lest we forget that pesky rape allegation.
2004 saw Kobe charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment, facing life in prison. But his case never reached the courts. Instead, it seemingly evaporated, leaving his life on an upward trajectory, give or take some self-proclaimed subsequent ‘soul-searching’ and a six figure apology ring for his wife. A statement from Nike that they ‘agree with NBA observers that Kobe ranks among the very best players in the NBA’ made the verdict of commercial entities and consumers alike very clear. Now, in death, it seems that any consequences truly have been collectively forgotten.
One version of the events leading up to the charges reads as follows. June 30th 2003, a 19-year-old girl arrived at her place of work, The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. Post introductions with the man himself, she showed Kobe to his room and agreed to return in fifteen minutes’ time to give him a tour of the hotel. After said tour, they sat down to chat. He tried to persuade her to open the Jacuzzi for him after hours, and she told him her shift was over and she had to head home. He tried to convince her to return in fifteen minutes and, instincts flaring up, she agreed to, intending to leave and not come back. She stood up to leave the room, and Kobe asked her for a hug. She agreed and instead he kissed her. She allowed him to kiss her, but as he took off his pants, she tried in earnest to leave the room, backing towards the door. That was when he started to choke her. He groped her and forced her hands towards his penis. Terrified, she told him that she wanted to leave and he showed no sign of hearing her. He held her by the neck and physically forced her over the side of the coach, lifting up her skirt.
She said no. Several times. She knows he heard her because every time she said no, he tightened his hold around her neck. He started to rape her. He moved his face close to hers and said ‘you’re not gonna tell anybody’. He asked her if she liked it when a guy came on her face and she said no. He said ‘what did you say’ tightening his hold around her neck, and she said no again. He said he was going to do it anyway. She tried to get away, crying. As she became more aggressive, he stopped. He forced her to fix her hair and wash her face, ensuring she looked calm before leaving the room. He told her, bluntly, that nobody was going to know about this.
But Kobe has another version of events. It reads like so. The police asked Kobe three times what happened between the pair. Three times he told police that nothing at all had happened. When the police explained the allegation, he asked ‘is there any way I can settle this, whatever it is, I mean…?’. When the police told him a physical exam had provided them with both semen and blood evidence, he admitted the two had had sex and it was ‘totally consensual’. He said the accuser ‘wasn’t that attractive’. He described the bruises across her neck as typical aftermath of the sex he has with women. The physical exam of the accuser showed too many lacerations to count within her vaginal area, two of which were one centimeter in length. The nurse said such lacerations are inconsistent with consensual sex. The victim’s blood was also found on a shirt Kobe climaxed onto after she had left.
What followed these events can best be described as a media massacre of a teenage girl. They preyed on her mental health and her sex life, both deemed to be entirely improper for a victim of rape. A ruthless defence team leaked her identity on multiple occasions, with the onslaught culminating in hate mail and death threats delivered to her home address. She elected not to testify. She chose instead to file a separate civil suit and asked for an apology and the half-confession Kobe coughed up recognized that ‘she did not consent to this encounter’. The civil lawsuit was settled out of court following the apology for what, according to Colorado law, must have been under $2.5 million.
Momentary blips in his endorsement campaigns with McDonalds, Nutella, and Nike ceased by 2005, when he was welcomed back with open arms. And his basketball career never even took pause. Since his passing, even self-proclaimed feminists like Taylor Swift and Lizzo have spoken out on their love and respect for this man. Honored in 2017 as a silence-breaker kick starting the #MeToo movement, Swift articulated on Twitter how much Kobe ‘meant to [her] and to us all’. Lizzo sings ‘for Kobe’. Obama calls him a ‘legend’. There has been a resounding silence from every angle on whether or not this legend is in fact a rapist. The phrase ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’ springs to mind.
The arguments of Michael Jackson’s defenders, condemning those who accuse a man no longer around to defend himself in what they see as a kangaroo court of sorts, seem to relate here. The 2019 documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’ detailed accusations of sexual abuse of children by the King of Pop and caused enormous controversy. MJ had faced trial on similar charges in 2005 and was found not guilty. These new accusations, coming after this death and thus denying him opportunity to defend himself, are perceived by some as very unfair. The memory of a man adored by so many is irrevocably tainted by accusations he will never have the chance to combat. Others feel the concept of fairness in that scenario probably went out the window decades ago. But the difference is clear where Kobe is concerned: rather than new, this accusation is sixteen years old, and apparently forgotten.
2004 was undoubtedly a very different time regarding the treatment of sexual violence. Only come 2017’s #MeToo movement would an accusation like this make a dent (albeit often a miniscule one) in a man’s reputation. It is plausible that the accusation against Bryant, clearly inconsequential in its time, was brushed under the carpet. If we’re handing out the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the current crowd are genuinely unaware of the accusations against him. More interesting, and potentially more realistic, is the possibility of willful ignorance in this case and its counterparts.
There is the startling possibility that perhaps death does make people untouchable. Kobe Bryant is a man with immense influence and reactions of his death make clear that he changed lives for the better. It illustrates the fact grief has a tendency to sideline the problematic parts of public figures, and perhaps this has its benefits to their fans and to their families. The logic behind this tendency is fundamentally human. It is natural to look back at people we have lost and to want to see their best parts, to actively put our rose-tinted glasses on and refuse to take them off. It is uncomfortable to realize that the people we look up to may not be worthy of the pedestal we’ve placed them upon. It is disconcerting to realize we do not know our heroes in the way that intrusive press attention and our Instagram access allows us to believe we do. But our collective reaction in cases like this is sending a very disturbing message: ‘If you wait long enough, accusations will simply go away. Death absolves all sin.’
To respond to Kobe’s death with no regard for a person whose life he may have derailed is unjust. To revere a man who defended against a rape accusation with the implication that a woman was not attractive enough to justify it is an oversight of catastrophic consequence. How we choose to respond relies on a key question; the question of who we are trying to protect. Recent years have seen many people’s answer to that question shift dramatically. Willful blindness, attractive in abstract, has historically protected abusers. Martin Luther King Jr. told us decades ago that in silence, you are taking the side of the oppressor. In failing to address the fact this man has been accused of a horrific crime as we mourn him, we are teaching generations that such crimes will be wiped from your record if you, say, play basketball better and die tragically.
In death, will we greet OJ Simpson with open arms? Weinstein? R. Kelly? Bill Cosby? Much like many of these men, the weight of Kobe Bryant’s professional résumé is irrefutable. His death is irrefutably tragic. Equally tragic is the very real possibility that he raped a nineteen-year old girl and got away with it.∎
Words by Margot Harvey. Art by Ng Wei Kai.