Kobe Bryant's complicated legacy sparks tough conversations

Kobe Bryant’s enormous yet complicated legacy has spurred an impassioned debate about how seemingly larger-than-life figures should be remembered. 

Bryant, 41, died last month after his helicopter crashed into a hillside outside Los Angeles. Bryant, his 13-year old daughter, Gianna, and the seven other passengers on board were killed. 

The former NBA star enjoyed a nearly unparalleled career on the hardwood that included five NBA titles, 18 All-Star selections and more than 33,000 points. His ruthless competitiveness earned him widespread respect, and his dedication to fatherhood inspired many.

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But to many, any discussion of Bryant must include the felony sexual assault charge he faced 17 years ago.

Bryant was accused in 2003 of sexually assaulting a Colorado hotel employee. The charges were later dropped after the alleged victim declined to cooperate with prosecutors. She would eventually settle with Bryant outside of court, and in an apology, Bryant acknowledged that the woman did not consider their "encounter" to be consensual. 

Where the rape case fits into his legacy is what many find themselves grappling with, particularly in the wake of the celebration of Bryant’s life and as some people face harsh blowback for discussing the allegation. The most notable incident involved death threats being sent to a Washington Post reporter who tweeted an article about the case shortly after news of Bryant’s death broke.  

This week, "CBS This Morning" anchor Gayle KingGayle KingThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump, GOP senators at odds over next stimulus bill Minneapolis police union says members have been 'scapegoated by political leaders' Fox News, CBS morning show hosts return to broadcast studios MORE faced a torrent of criticism, including from rapper Snoop Dogg, after CBS shared a clip of her questioning former WNBA star Lisa Leslie about the case. Snoop Dogg posted a video telling King to “back off — before we come get you." The threat prompted a scathing response from former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who told the rapper to "back the **** off."

Everyday conversations related to Bryant on platforms such as Twitter also quickly became toxic at the mention of the sexual assault charge.

Sarah Lustbader, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, wrote for The Appeal that "none of us should be surprised at the lack of nuance in any of this."

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“Our legal system isn’t set up for nuance or evolution,” she wrote. “It’s an adversarial system that pits the accuser against the accused, forcing them to battle it out inside and outside the courtroom until one of them calls it quits, or a jury decides guilty or not guilty.”

That lack of nuance can extend to the ways in which conversations often devolve on social media platforms. Felicia Sonmez, the Post reporter, was suddenly exposed to massive vitriol after sharing a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story focused on the Bryant rape case. The Post initially suspended Sonmez for the tweet before reversing the decision following widespread opposition inside the newsroom

Actress Evan Rachel Wood faced similar backlash after tweeting, “I am heartbroken for Kobe’s family. He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously.” 

The examples illustrate how polarizing discussing Bryant’s death and capturing the full picture of his life can be. But Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School, only sees that as a reflection of how difficult talking about sexual violence is. 

“This is always going to be a difficult conversation. And then when you add to that intense celebrity and then when you add to that the polarizing nature of today’s social media environment, of course it’s going to be an incendiary conversation,” Shapiro told The Hill, adding that it makes the role of journalism “all the more important.”

“We can’t control how people are going to behave on their own social media accounts,” said Shapiro, who heads a project that provides resources to journalists reporting on violence. “But we do become the narrators of the first resort. We do lay down the basic parameters of how most of the public is going to understand the life of this individual who just died.” 

Shapiro said two “arcs of innovation” have taken shape — in journalism and the public’s willingness to confront sexual violence — since Bryant was accused of rape. Those innovations, enhanced by the increasing force of the "Me Too" movement, impact the world’s expectations for this conversation, he added.  

“This individual’s tragic death is an opportunity to advance even further a conversation that has been going on a number of years about how to report on sexual violence by revered people and revered institutions,” said Shapiro.

Bryant’s felony sexual assault charge was similar to other cases in one important way. Data indicates that the vast majority of cases never end in a conviction. In Bryant's case, the alleged victim reportedly refused to testify after facing an onslaught of attacks from Bryant’s defense team and after her name and photos were publicized, despite efforts to block their disclosure. Bryant's lawyer once said the woman's name repeatedly during a court hearing.

In the intervening years, Bryant cultivated an image that tried to push past the sexual assault accusation. The signature “Black Mamba” nickname he adopted came from the aftermath of the allegation. Bryant told The New Yorker in 2014 that the “vision” for the name “was to build a brand and do all these things.” 

Bryant later became deeply invested in women’s basketball, coaching his daughter Gianna and emerging as a champion for the WNBA. He also won an Oscar in 2018 for an animated short, “Dear Basketball,” that he wrote and narrated. 

But his Oscars win signaled to some the limitations of the current "Me Too" movement, and he never publicly reckoned with the rape allegation, even as advocates pushed for greater support for victims. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the U.S., told The Hill that the “effects of sexual assault on a survivor often last for decades.”  

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"We were saddened by the tragedy and feel for the families of those who were killed,” RAINN said in a statement. “Still, while we don’t diminish Kobe Bryant’s professional accomplishments, it is disrespectful to survivors — and history — to pretend that the sexual assault allegation never happened.” 

The tributes that scattered across the globe following Bryant’s death showcased how transcendent the former NBA star's influence was. But the coverage of his death also signaled how important a dialogue about sexual violence has become as it relates to public figures and their biographies. Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, remarked on Twitter that “it’s OK to hold complicated feelings [about] our heroes, our loved ones.”  

“Thanks to the pressures of social media, in which we react to unfathomable news in real time, we often fall into a binary of good or bad, wrong or right, on the side of survivors or on the side of a rapist,” Evette Dionne, the editor-in-chief of Bitch Media, wrote in Time magazine. “It is rarely that simple.”

Rather, Dionne urged the public to “confront the tragedy that has befallen Bryant and his family, understand the greatness he exhibited on the court and finally — maybe for the first time — reckon with the irreparable trauma he inflicted.”

Updated: 2:44 p.m.