It’s Not Too Soon, It’s Too Late
Why Kobe Bryant’s rape scandal should be put to rest with him.
Less than an hour after Kobe Bryant was killed in a horrific helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven other people, people were already taking to social media to label him as a rapist. Calling him a rapist based upon accusations from seventeen years ago that were never proven in a court of law. Accusations that were taken very seriously by Colorado law enforcement, but that came from an accuser with serious credibility issues, who ultimately refused to testify. Calling him a rapist when these same people said precisely nothing about this ugly chapter in his life when he was alive.
I was fifteen in the summer of 2003, relaxing at my grandparents’ cottage with my family when the news broke that Kobe Bryant had been arrested in Colorado on rape charges. I was not a basketball fan (nor am I now), so the question over whether his still-young NBA career was over frankly did not phase me. Having no dog in that hunt, I was disgusted when I heard some of my male classmates say that even if he was guilty, he should not go to jail, because his NBA career was too important to so many people. I expressed this disgust more than once, but I did not believe him to be a rapist, and I never did.
There is only one thing that we, the public, know about what happened in that hotel room in 2003: it was ugly. And sleazy. And adulterous. And, I would even go so far as to say, misogynistic. The question of whether or not anything criminal took place was never answered in accordance with the laws of the State of Colorado, and it never will be. As soon as the criminal charges were dropped, putting an end to that part of the saga, the question of Kobe’s guilt or innocence became one solely of morality, not legality. Besides, we all know too well that sometimes the criminal justice system gets it wrong, both in convicting the innocent, and in acquitting people who cut off the heads of their ex-wives. The legal questions surrounding this sordid mess are not what will impact Kobe’s legacy.
It is important, dear reader, before you shriek at me, to remember how much has changed since the early 2000s in how we view rape and consent. If you asked me or any of my teenaged classmates back then, “What is rape?” we would have all answered that rape is forced sex (and we usually would have been thinking of penile-vaginal penetration, specifically). Most of us would have also included having sex with someone incapacitated by drugs and/or alcohol in our definition of rape, but for the most part, the presence of physical threat or force was the defining characteristic of rape, as far as most people back then were concerned. I am glad to say that in the years since then, our societal understanding of what constitutes rape has greatly broadened. We have come to understand that other forms of forced sex (oral, manual, etc.) constitute rape as much as forced penile-vaginal contact. Taking advantage of someone unable to say “yes” because of drugs or alcohol is now expected to be taken as a “no.” The fact that a victim does not physically resist or fight back does not constitute any kind of consent or suggest that that victim is less traumatized or violated than one that does fight back. Our ideas about consent have also come a long way, with affirmative consent slowly becoming the gold standard, and ongoing communication between sexual partners encouraged as necessary and desirable.
But it was through the 2003 lens that my fifteen-year-old self first asked whether Kobe Bryant, who had everything, up to his very freedom, to lose, had actually forced this young girl into sex. As I’ve stated, I was not a basketball fan, and Kobe had a certain youthful arrogance in his demeanour back then that tended to get up my nose, so I was not trying to preserve an image of a hero in my own mind. I read and watched everything I could about the case from as many angles as possible, and finally concluded that the answer to that question was simply, “No.” He was an adulterer, and a pig, but not a monster.
Even then, I did not assume that his accuser had any nefarious motivation. Was it possible that she had accused him of rape simply for publicity or money? Maybe. Was she upset that she was treated like just another groupie, used for sex and discarded, and had gone insane like something out of Fatal Attraction? Again, maybe. Or was this a horrible case of miscommunication, where the two had different ideas about what she was doing in his hotel room? That seemed to me the most likely scenario.
In 2004 when the criminal case was dropped, Kobe’s own words seemed to agree with me:
First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colorado.
I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.
I issue this statement today fully aware that while one part of this case ends today, another remains. I understand that the civil case against me will go forward. That part of this case will be decided by and between the parties directly involved in the incident and will no longer be a financial or emotional drain on the citizens of the state of Colorado.
Back in 2004, I read this statement as a well-thought-out and honest admission of his own faults. Looking back on it now, through a post-Weinsteingate, #MeToo era lens, it is a rather refreshing admission by someone that he did not seek the ongoing, affirmative consent that should be the basis for all sexual encounters. He also acknowledged the harm done to the less powerful person involved, rather than dismissing it or making excuses.
Although I am more troubled by the description of what happened in the hotel room now than I was back then, I still did not view him as a rapist. If you believe that Kobe was sincere when he said that he believed the encounter to be consensual, then there was no mens rea — Latin for “guilty mind.” I still firmly believe that he did not intend to harm the woman in question, even though the end result was that he did. I simply cannot put him on the same shelf with the Harvey Weinstein’s, R. Kelly’s, Woody Allen’s, and Bill Cosby’s of the world, and I would have a hard time believing that anyone who did was a morally serious person.
I think that Kobe could have done a great deal to teach people — young men especially — about sexual consent and to learn from his screw-ups. If I could have met him while he was alive, I would have encouraged him to speak up about this important issue, because people listened to him whenever he spoke. But even if he had wanted to bring this issue to the forefront again at some point (which we will never know, as he died so young and so soon after retirement), it is doubtful he would have been allowed to speak publicly about it. Anything constructive he could have had to say would have been drowned out by screams of “rapist”, “hypocrite”, “predator”, and heaven knows what else, and he would have been run out of town with pitchforks.
For the standards of the time in which it happened, in the absence of a criminal trial, this incident was dealt with in a fairly standard way; the parties reached a confidential financial settlement, the accuser was able to disappear from the public eye, and Kobe had to rebuild his reputation.
And that he did.
He did a great deal for people in need, including underprivileged youth in the United States and China, veterans reintegrating into civilian life, and the homeless, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. He encouraged people to get active and involved in athletic activities, and especially championed girls’ involvement in sports. He put his money where his mouth was, and I’m sure his widow and surviving daughters will continue his efforts in honour of their husband, father, daughter and sister. Despite his indiscretions and the sometimes shaky grounds on which his marriage stood, Kobe dearly loved his wife, and was undoubtedly an extremely devoted and loving father.
The fact that people sometimes do terrible things does not mean that they are terrible people. Everyone has good and evil inside of them, and the legacies of all public figures, whether we realize it or not, are formed on a balance between the good and bad. I believe that on the whole, Kobe Bryant did more good for the world than bad. That does not erase his misdeeds, but the time for calling him to further account for those misdeeds was when he was alive. He could have been a valuable teacher in the sexual ethics movements of today, if ever the proverbial lynching mobs would have allowed him to speak. That is just one of the many possibilities lost to us when this new chapter in his life was so brutally cut short.