[Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault]
As a Los Angeles native, I grew up considering Kobe Bryant a physical manifestation of a god. He commands the court with ease and intensity as he sinks unimaginable shots. He makes basketball beautiful.
Kobe’s decorated career is almost unmatched. He holds five NBA championship rings, is a two-time finals most valuable player, stands third in all-time scoring and has been an NBA all-star 18 times. Not to mention he won two Olympic gold medals and scored 81 points in a single game. Not too shabby.
Such greatness is hard to maintain for so long. We all knew Kobe’s final days as an NBA player would come eventually, but my fellow Laker fans and I didn’t think it would be now.
It’s hard to imagine the Lakers franchise without Kobe. It doesn’t seem right. Kobe played the last game of his career on April 13 in a sold-out Staples Center in Los Angeles. Fans paid upwards of $25,000 to see the legend take the court one last time.
And he didn’t disappoint. Kobe scored 60 points, including the game-winner. That’s the sixth time in his career he’s posted 60 points or more in a game.
Since announcing his retirement, the attention on Kobe increased tenfold. Fellow players, fans and the media have reminisced on Kobe’s 20-year career with the Lakers. Nike even made a special shoe in his honor.
The purple and gold confetti commemorating the supreme athlete caused everyone to lose sight of one major event during his tenure: the rape allegations Kobe faced 13 years ago.
In June 2003, a 19-year-old woman said Kobe raped her in his Colorado hotel room. She reported the incident to the police, telling them he choked her and physically forced her into sexual intercourse despite her struggle and constantly saying no.
The events that followed are painful at best. Kobe first lied to the detectives, but then admitted to having sex with the woman after finding out they had physical evidence proving he had sexual contact with her.
Kobe later said he should have given the woman money or a car to bribe her against coming forward against him.
The case went to court, where Kobe claimed innocence. Kobe’s attorney and the media created a not-so-pretty picture of the teenager, describing her as a mentally unstable, fame-seeking sex fiend.
With her life in shambles, it’s easy to see why the young woman couldn’t testify and subsequently dropped the criminal charges against the Laker.
As a result of the allegations, Kobe lost his endorsements with McDonald’s and Ferrero’s Nutella brand. Nike temporarily dropped the basketball star, but picked him up again shortly after.
This time around, the company used his now “bad-boy” image to its advantage, coining him the Black Mamba. That’s the sole consequence Kobe faced.
Even worse, some speculated the event helped boost Kobe’s career. ESPN commentator Skip Bayless argued the star “couldn’t sell sneakers because he didn’t have enough edge … Colorado, it brought a little attention to him, like it gave him a little bit of sizzle.”
In other words, Kobe’s mistreatment of another human being brought him more fame. Rape isn’t sexy or flashy; it’s illegal.
I was eight years old when these allegations surfaced. I didn’t know what sex was, let alone sexual assault. The only thing I remember about that fateful 2003 season was that Kobe and Shaq had an issue, but I didn’t know why.
Maybe I was too young and naïve to notice, but people didn’t discuss what happened. Laker fans and the media seemed to have blinders on, blocking out Kobe’s actions because of his fame and skill.
And that’s just it. What happened remains only a small blemish on Kobe’s career and nothing more. His fans didn’t hold him accountable and the media didn’t make an example out of him. What message does that send?
To compartmentalize Kobe’s athletic talents and his rape allegations is inherently wrong. In doing so, people are accepting his wrongdoings because of his professional success. Kobe remains on a pedestal because of his high value.
When my friend and I spoke about our conflicting feelings she said, “Every time we speak in awe of Bryant, we perpetuate the idea that women are worth less than basketball and that rapists may live on with impunity.”
Imagine that, women deemed less important than a sport.
Athletes, celebrities and the like are constantly idealized despite their utterly repulsive actions. Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger and Greg Hardy are a few athletes who come to mind. Celebrities’ images are never completely destroyed, while the women they abuse have their lives pulled out from under them.
In 2003 rape was an issue, but it wasn’t at the forefront of discussion like it is now. It’s hard to say whether the public would react similarly had Kobe’s allegations surfaced today.
Kobe is considered a role model. People young and old look up to him and mimic his play, attitude and actions. Being a perpetrator is not excluded. If the media had shamed Kobe’s behavior and knocked him off his immortal pedestal, rape culture might look a bit different now.
I don’t know how to negotiate being a Kobe fan anymore. Although his playing days are over, his legacy will remain in basketball’s history forever. Yes, he is undeniably gifted, but that can’t overshadow his abusive behavior.
As Kobe’s final season ends, I can’t help but wonder why people continue to push away the rape allegations as if nothing happened. As a longtime Laker fan I recognize Kobe’s basketball greatness. But he’s no hero. To call him that compromises everything I stand for as a woman.