When Kobe Bryant passed away on Jan. 26, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter accident, it seemed as if the whole world was mourning.
In the hours, days and even weeks following his death, social media platforms were flooded with posts paying tribute — painting an almost-godlike portrait of a man who was not only an NBA legend and tech mogul, but who was also humble, charitable and a family man above all.
But there was a flip side to his legacy: in 2003, a 19-year-old woman accused Bryant of rape. Despite a seemingly strong case from the prosecution, the charges against Bryant were eventually dropped, but not before he admitted that he had not explicitly asked for consent and that while he thought the encounter had been consensual, he understood that she felt differently.
While the lionisation of Bryant in the media since his death has undoubetdly been a source of great comfort for his legion of mourning fans, it also represents a gross disregard for the experiences of survivors of sexual assault for whom he represents not only a basketball hero, but also a reminder of the trauma they have endured.
To discuss this side of him, it seems, is nothing short of mortal sin. Shortly after Bryant’s death, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez came under fire following a tweet she posted that included a link to a 2016 article about the alleged rape.
Bryant’s case is admittedly a complex one — with what was essentially a confession but without a conviction, he straddles the line between “rapist” and “alleged rapist.” And 17 years ago, at the height of the controversy, the conversation was not about the specifics of what actually happened — rather, it was about the deep-rooted “To Kill a Mockingbird”–esque trope of white women accusing black men of sexual violence and the broader issue of the overpolicing of black men.
Now, Sonmez’s comments and the emerging discussion about the rape charges have reignited the same conversation, but in the age of #MeToo, it is further complicated by the movement to believe women, especially those who accuse rich and powerful men.
I don’t attempt to deny the monumental consequences that come with the perpetuation of the stereotype of black men as sexual predators, nor do I assert that Bryant’s fame and success negate his experience as a black man in the U.S. But Bryant’s case is far more reminiscent of Bill Cosby’s than Emmett Till’s — for Bryant, the violation of a young woman and desecration of her reputation was summed up as a case of bad optics from which he emerged virtually unscathed. And in a society that deifies male professional athletes and in which accusers of rape are put on trial more than those they’ve accused, it is vital that we remember our befallen heroes in their totality and refuse to allow a shining athletic legacy to invalidate the heinous crime that is sexual assault.