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'Not now. Then when?': Kobe Bryant's death prompts battle over focus on star's rape charge

Kobe Bryant's death has sparked an outpouring of grief and tributes as well as reminders that his legacy is also marked by an allegation of sexual assault. That, in turn, has sparked a backlash from some fans who said it's too soon to revisit that part of his life.

Basketball great should be remembered as a whole person, observers say

Amid the grief and tributes to Kobe Bryant after his death on Sunday were reminders of a historical rape allegation — raising the question of how to deal with the complicated legacy of a person many see as a hero. (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)

For author and attorney Mark Shaw, there's one memory of Kobe Bryant seared into his brain — that of a young basketball star seated in a Colorado courtroom with what he perceived as a flippant attitude to the charge of sexual assault against him.

"Here was Kobe with an arrogant look on his face," said Shaw, who covered the case for ESPN in 2004.

"It bothered me and it bothered all of the other reporters. He wasn't taking this seriously at all. I don't know if he was in denial or whatever, but he just didn't take it seriously."

Shaw, who is convinced of Bryant's guilt, said he is particularly bothered by the coverage of Bryant's death, that not enough emphasis has been placed on this part of the athlete's life.

The tragic death of Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash Sunday, has sparked an outpouring of grief and tributes for the basketball great who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles during his 20-year career. But others have been quick to note that Bryant's legacy is also marked by an allegation of sexual assault. And that, in turn, has sparked a backlash from some fans angered that the allegations were revisited so soon after his death.

"When someone passes away, certainly you want to highlight what they did well in life. And apparently he did kind of turn his life around from that point and became a great father, and the things that he's done and all of that, that's great," said Shaw.

"But you just need to tell both sides of the story. A lot of times people just don't want to really know the truth. They would rather discard that and only look at the positives that were involved with somebody's life."

Bryant at the Eagle County Justice Center in 2004 for pretrial motions in connection with the alleged rape of a 19-year-old woman. (Ed Andrieski/The Associated Press)

Indeed, a Washington Post reporter faced considerable social media backlash and death threats after she tweeted a link to an old article about the sexual assault allegation against Bryant shortly after he was killed. (Felicia Sonmez was suspended by the paper, which then seemed to back off on Tuesday.)

Jill Filipovic, lawyer and author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, said it's possible to "grieve a life lost and also address that life honestly."

"To everyone yelling NOT NOW: Then when? When are we supposed to grapple with, and tell the whole truth about, the lives of people many admire?" she tweeted Sunday.

 

In a blog posted titled Kobe Bryant and Complicated Legacies, Filipovic wrote that all of his success in sports is "key to Kobe's story" but also "is not the whole story."

"Out of some mislaid definition of 'respect,' we are so excellent at sidelining the inconvenient parts, at least when the inconvenient parts are women we've made invisible and the one inconvenienced is a man we would prefer to keep admiring, without complication," she wrote.

Bryant with his daughter Gianna at the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game. Gianna was also killed in the helicopter crash Sunday. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In 2003, Bryant was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He had said the two had consensual sex. Prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser, in exchange for a public apology. Bryant also settled a civil suit against him by the accuser for an undisclosed amount of money.

While some endorsements dried up, including McDonald's, other major companies like Nike stuck by Bryant. He was largely able to put the allegations behind him, going on to have one of the most successful careers in the NBA, eventually retiring in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in the league's history. 

However, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, those allegations resurfaced. In March 2018, after he won an Oscar for the short animated film Dear Basketball, based on a poem he wrote, some criticized the Academy for its selection. And in Oct. 2018, he was ousted from the jury of an animated film festival after an online petition was circulated demanding he be dropped.

Shaw said in recounting Bryant's legacy, it's fine to talk about how Bryant seemed to change his ways following the alleged attack.

"I think you can do it in a way where you say despite him being charged with sexual assault ... Kobe Bryant had become a changed man. I think you can put a positive spin on this — but it does need to include this incident that happened back then."

Globe and Mail investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle, whose recent book Had it Coming: What's Fair in the Age of #MeToo? includes a chapter about the Bryant case, said it's important to remember someone like Bryant as a whole person. 

"He can be a basketball legend, and it means so much to so many people, and he can also be an amazing father, by all accounts. He can also be someone who faced very credible sexual assault or rape allegations," she said.

"I don't necessarily think that people should hate Kobe Bryant. My book is all about 'It's not black or white. The hot take isn't necessarily the most productive one.'"

His death, the outpouring of grief, and what some might say is an effort by fans to ignore the most controversial chapter of his life is illustrative of the intense relationship many have with their celebrity idols, said Bradley Bond, a University of San Diego associate professor in communication studies.

Bond studies the psychological concept known as parasocial relationship: the way people develop very strong social and emotional ties to fictional characters and celebrities.

The nature of entertainment media is to continually disclose information about these people, and the public feels like they get to know them over the course of time, he said.

"So it makes sense that when one of those perceived relationships dissolves that we experience grief in a similar way."

Eric Mascarenhas comforts his son Nicolas at a memorial for Bryant near the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

And when a celebrity does something that conflicts with one's own moral code, it either negatively influences the relationship or fans find a way to close that cognitive dissonance with some type of excuse, Bond said.

"I think the easiest case with something like Kobe's complicated background is to simply not believe the accuser."

As well, fans may also be able to separate an actor or athlete's personal life with their performance.

"You can still admire that primary attribute even if secondary attributes might conflict with what you see as an admirable person. I think you can separate Kobe the athlete from Kobe the individual."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press

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