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The Complicated Legacy of Kobe Bryant
Yes, this is another thinkpiece about Kobe Bryant. I will likely echo a few things you’ve already heard, as I have not read any beyond their titles. I have been processing my feelings about Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna’s passing since last week, and I doubt that I will ever thoroughly process it. Helicopter crashes like this are rare, and we all expected Kobe Bryant to live long enough to become a commentator on ESPN.
I was going on 19 when Kobe Bryant was drafted into the NBA. At the time, I was struggling in college and attempting to hide my homelessness from everyone. Hearing about a teenager one year younger than me getting his dream job straight out of high school was a bit of a sting. I was here barely living, and a dude younger than me is an instant millionaire? Where did I go wrong? Though I wasn’t very big into basketball, I knew that he was a damn good player, and his early career proved that he was worthy of him skipping college and going straight to the professional league. Rumors of him being a bit cocky and quarreling with older players abound, though, as were rumors of him stepping out on his wife during away games. I wasn’t even surprised in 2003 he was accused of sexual assault. I assumed that is what professional athletes do. I was less surprised that the case was dropped and the civil case was settled out of court. This is the way sexual assault cases are (mis)handled in America, after all. Bryant continued to play despite losing a few endorsements, but by the time he retired, he built himself back up to being the superstar that he was, and his sexual assault case seemed to be a footnote in his career.
When he and Gianna Bryant passed away on January 26th, I thought about who he was and what he’d done throughout his life, and what my opinion of him was back in 1996, all while seeing a barrage of people dancing on his grave because of the sexual assault case while others defended his career as an athlete and philanthropist. I remember the jealousy I had for him for jumping right into the real world seemingly without any struggle and maintaining disdain for him as the rumors of cockiness and arrogance abound. The sexual assault case did not help my opinion of him at all. Look at his life now, I should remember, he was 18 when he started playing. Most players have a 4-year life orientation in college to mature a little bit before they get drafted, and even then, most 21-22 year old men don’t know a damn thing about life. Of course, he was a little bit cocky, and he likely wasn’t at a maturity level to properly handle conflict. It makes sense now that he clashed with his teammates initially. This is no excuse for any of his behavior, but I speculatively understand.
Regarding the sexual assault case, none of us were there and cannot say what happened, but that is no reason to dismiss his accuser as a “clout chaser” or any other disparaging term I’ve heard in the last week about her. The number of women who accuse men of rape in order to get a big payoff is close to zero, despite the propaganda we consume that states otherwise. It is also unfair to simply call Kobe Bryant a flat out rapist, but I can’t fault any victim of sexual assault from dismissing Bryant’s legacy because of this case. I can’t imagine the memories triggered by mention of the incident. After the settlement, Bryant both apologized for the incident but vehemently denied raping her, stating:
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was completely consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view the 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.”
It is not the best apology in the world, but it does indicate a larger problem in the country: that we are abysmally failing at teaching consent and sexuality to our men early enough. In the book Blurred Lines by Vanessa Grigoriadis, she explores through extensive research and surveys where there is often a disconnect between what a man thinks is consensual and what a woman does. Often, men think of sex as a duty and a prize, separating the act of sex from the human being with whom he must interact. The early 2000s was not a great time for open discussions of consent culture. None of this excuses any transgressions Bryant may have done.
Another aspect that we don’t talk enough about is the long history of black men being accused of assaulting specifically white women as an excuse to lynch them physically or socially. Hundreds of men and boys died this way, and sometimes the girls they were accused of assaulting never existed. There are few black men in America that hear cases like this and at least for a second think about this legacy. I will admit, when I first heard of the assaults that Bill Cosby perpetuated, my first thought was that. Fortunately, we live in a time where ironclad evidence can come out when people actually do their jobs, and he is now in jail. However, that shadow still looms for other cases. It also seems disproportionate the amount of vitriol lobbed at Kobe Bryant days after his death. There are hundreds of white male sexual assaulters and rapists alive right now where that energy can be channeled, yet many were quick to bring up Kobe Bryant’s case, hours after news of his and his daughter’s death. I wonder if those same voices will be as loud when someone like Ben Roethlisberger dies.
As Bryant got older, he gave more and more to the community with basketball scholarships, after-school programs, and a fervent support for the growth of the WNBA. He was enthusiastic about his daughters getting into basketball as well, and he was on his way to a game when his helicopter crashed and took his and his daughter’s lives, as well as seven other people. He made a major impact on people’s lives whether directly or indirectly, and it seems that he’s grown and matured since his younger days. Any praise for his life is not an attack on his accuser, and sympathy for his accuser is not an attack on his legacy. It is completely possible to hold both feelings at the same time. It is confounding that we cannot fathom a person feeling pity for Bryant’s surviving family, all the people he affected, and also his accuser. Humans are complicated, much like life.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog , he currently writes the Chronicles of Nonsense segment for the Almost Tuesday show on WAYO-FM 104.3, and regularly posts and writes on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon.Additionally , Chris is a Food Writer for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com
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