Amidst the whirlwind of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others, a new piece of Bryant’s legacy has emerged: a case of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman.
Bryant believed the exchange was consensual. The victim did not.
The question of consent still hangs in that Edwards, Colorado hotel room.
Though this news has just resurfaced, I feel I already know what topics of discussion this might yield. Perhaps it will raise questions about what is consent. Maybe it will call into question racial dynamics in cases of sexual assault. I’m sure there will be those who don’t want this circumstance to tarnish Bryant’s sterling legacy, while others will.
We get so trapped in the verbiage around consent, assault and rape, as if defining these terms will make sure those guilty are punished and those innocent are redeemed.
No amount of speculation will destroy the patriarchy and misogyny this nation thrives on. And, no precision of language will ensure that perpetrators are served justice.
After I read this story, I imagined all the debates that would be made if the American people cared enough about sexual assault to give it its due time in our public discourse and courts of law.
But I know what will not happen.
This story will disappear. And it will be but a mere speck of imperfection on Bryant’s golden image.
Was Bryant an icon? Of course. Was he a legendary athlete? No doubt.
But in 2003 he committed an unforgivable offense.
Whether consent was given or not is irrelevant. An incredibly prominent American hero asked a teenager to have sex with him.
By this point in NBA history, Bryant was already a tour de force and, whether or not he was asserting his authority over her, it rang in the air loud and clear.
Another important component of the situation was the victim’s age. Only 19. If she had been slightly younger, she would have been considered a minor and this would have been a criminal offense whether or not consent was given.
Imagine being a young woman, just out of high school, and one of the top athletes in the country asked you to do something. You would be far more likely to do it under these circumstances.
Bryant should have known better. He knew the influence he wielded and the vulnerable stage this young person was at, in her maturity and decision-making process.
But we’ll forgive him. We will read this story, feel a slight sense of unease, swallow it quickly and proceed to praise his achievements. We will shove the feeling down as we are so apt to do these days when we learn an influential person has manipulated young women.
But when a female Washington Post reporter so much as mentioned the case on Twitter, she faced administrative leave. A punitive measure that far surpassed anything Bryant faced for actually committing the act.
In this situation there were three players.
A reporter trying to honor Bryant’s legacy whose entire career was put in jeopardy.
A woman who was assaulted by Bryant at age 19 and has likely never been the same since. Perhaps she struggles to watch basketball or Nike ads on TV. Perhaps she can’t return to that hotel or city again. Perhaps her sleep has never been the same since. Perhaps her life has never been the same since. Consequences that are all quite commonplace after one faces sexual assault.
And then there’s Bryant. Who walked away scot-free and went on to another 17 years of an illustrious career and lush retirement.
I’m well past the point in even my young and idealistic life of believing that people ever face the consequences of sexual assault. In this country we punish sexual assault like we punish petty theft.
But it hadn’t occurred to me until this case that we are so much more willing to forgive perpetrators than victims.
We forgave Brock Turner. Punished him for a few months and released him to rape others soon after. Sure, he may have raped and mutilated an unconscious young woman, but he’s a great swimmer.
We forgave Bill Cosby. Sure, he drugged and raped women but he made us laugh.
We forgave Harvey Weinstein. Sure, he used his power to trick women into coming into his hotel rooms and violated them, but we still watch Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love.
Bryant’s offense doesn’t rise to nearly the same level of criminality as the rest. But we will award him the same degree of slack and I’m sure we will award it to men after him if they, too, wield their clout shrewdly enough.
This led me to think about an oft-used argument that makes my skin crawl. Perhaps my least favorite sentence in the English language.
“Well, it ruined his career.”
Perhaps swathes of women across the country will never be able to sleep again, never be able to have relationships again, never trust men again, never feel safe again. But, hey, it ruined his career.
I’m sure if you asked Turner if he’d rather never compete in a swim tournament again or never be able to sleep again, he would gladly give up swimming.
If you asked Weinstein if he’d rather retire early and coast on his fortune or never be able to feel safe again, he’d choose retirement.
A ruined career is not tantamount to a ruined life.
As we grieve the loss of Kobe Bryant, remember all the good he did. Remember the jaw-dropping games and the heart-breaking images of him and his family. Remember the Bryant you knew and loved, but don’t let this element of his past fade away. Remember it as tangibly as you remember his winning shots. Hold him accountable. You’d want Bryant’s assault case remembered if you were that young, impressionable 19-year-old girl.
Dana is a senior studying Journalism and Theatre. Do you believe that we need to hold Kobe Bryant accountable despite his tragic death? How should sexual assault be handled when the perpetrator passes away? Send all comments to email@example.com