The concurrent grief streams running in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death have done so much to recognize all that he accomplished in his 41 years, to celebrate his unique prowess on the basketball court, his impressive business acumen off it, and perhaps most poignantly, his abundant joy in raising four daughters with his wife, Vanessa.
The tributes were deserved, filling the earliest moments following Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash with respect and love not just for Bryant, but for the eight other souls on that doomed aircraft.
Most of them, including an initial piece written by this columnist, did not address the sexual assault accusation against Bryant in 2003, which reflected a conscious nod to timing: It just didn’t feel like the time to bring up that part of Bryant’s past, an alleged crime for which he was not convicted in a court of law.
But postponing something difficult does not mean eliminating it, and as the stages of grief pass to varying degrees relative to how we knew Bryant, there has to be room for anger, for addressing the complicated legacy of a man who seemingly evolved into a champion of women’s sports but remains a trigger for sexual assault survivors across the spectrum. It is a topic we cannot, and should not, be afraid to bring up.
“That is how you keep survivors silent — by always saying ‘not now,’ ” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a keen observer of how Bryant’s complicated legacy has been treated these past few days.
Hogshead-Makar is CEO of Champion Women, a legal advocacy center for girls and women in sports. The onetime Olympic swimmer (she won three gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Games) is also a rape survivor, as well as a civil rights lawyer. She has spent a professional career at the intersection of rape culture and sports culture.
When Hogshead-Makar thinks of Bryant, it is with a sense of lost opportunity, the chance he did not take to become an advocate against sexual violence the way he did in becoming an ally for the LGBTQ community after he used a homophobic slur to an NBA referee.
The details of the 2003 Colorado case are disturbing, with evidence of physical trauma to the accuser, and are underscored by the apology Bryant issued in its aftermath: “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to [the accuser’s] attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
After prosecutors dropped the criminal charges when the accuser would not testify, an out-of-court settlement in a civil suit and a nondisclosure agreement closed the case, and Bryant largely avoided talking about it ever again.
None of that diminishes its impact, even if it feels like that impact would have been far more difficult for Bryant to avoid now, given the 24/7 social media world in which we live as well as the #MeToo movement that has empowered women’s voices in new and important ways.
“The efforts by his fans to silence other rape survivors, including his, has been ongoing,” Hogshead-Makar said, “and that is rape culture. In many ways, he was able to learn from his mistakes, like when he called a referee a slur and he became a really good ally who was really supportive of people like Megan Rapinoe and Jason Collins. He really internalized that.
“What does the Maya Angelou quote say? ‘When you know better, you do better.’ Well, he got a master class in how rape culture works and he was part of it. And he never did better in that regard. He had four daughters — one in four women is a survivor of sexual assault.
“He stayed completely silent and never let his victim out of her NDA and he never spoke up, even within his world, the sports world, spoke up in favor of women like McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman, his [Olympic] teammates. He did not use his amazing voice in that way.”
What a powerful voice it might have been. But what power it might still wield, if we take Bryant’s support of women’s sports and use it as a springboard for more support in other areas, if we ask colleges to comply with Title IX requirements rather than fight them, if we stop and listen to accusers and survivors without attacking their credibility as a reflex, if we don’t sit idly by while defense lawyers shred accusers to the point where they are unwilling to testify, as in the case of the 19-year-old woman who accused Bryant.
“He had the platform,” Hogshead-Makar said. “There are so many ways — whether it’s coach on athlete, elite athlete on other athletes, elite athlete on another student — so many opportunities to get involved.
“There’s an easy advocate and then there is true advocacy. And given his history, I would expect him to be a true advocate.”
The anguish over Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash that claimed nine lives in total only deepened when we learned that three of those killed were Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna and two of her teammates on the basketball team Bryant coached. They reportedly were flying to a practice at the academy he built.
Bryant’s second act in the game he loved even prompted a resonant social media hashtag this week, when ESPN anchor Elle Duncan got #girldad trending by relaying her poignant interaction with Bryant in which he expressed his delight in raising girls.
That, too, is a part of Bryant’s legacy. And maybe it’s the one you choose to remember most. But lives and legacies are not one-note symphonies.
They are layered, complicated, and are always messy. They can be difficult to meld into one. Maybe we’re better off not trying.
We can appreciate one part of Bryant and still be disappointed in another.