The unsettling familiarity of the Derrick Rose rape trial

From the victim-blaming defense to the NBA’s silence, it feels like we’ve been here before.

New York Knicks basketball player Derrick Rose arrives at U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. CREDIT: Damian Dovarganes, AP
New York Knicks basketball player Derrick Rose arrives at U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. CREDIT: Damian Dovarganes, AP

New York Knicks star Derrick Rose arrived in the courtroom at 10:43 a.m. PT on Thursday morning, two days and over two hours after his civil trial for rape began in a Los Angeles federal courtroom.

As he entered, Jane Doe — Rose’s ex-girlfriend who is suing him and two of his friends for $21.5 million for allegedly gang-raping her two years ago — was on the stand, crying as she recalled waking up the morning after the alleged assault with her dress hanging around her neck, lube everywhere, and little recollection of the night before.

“I was just scared because I didn’t know what happened,” she said, as reported by Diana Moskovitz of Deadspin.

Rose — who is adamant that the sex was consensual — missed the first two days of the trial, which included jury selection and opening statements, as he made his debut with the New York Knicks in a preseason game against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night.

It’s unnerving to watch a star athlete go from defender to defendant in such a short period of time, but it’s hardly unprecedented. In fact, it’s hard to follow Rose’s trial without flashing back to 13 Octobers ago, when NBA star Kobe Bryant flew from preseason training camp with the Los Angeles Lakers to the preliminary hearing for his rape case in Colorado. The following year, Bryant took a private plane — primarily paid for by the Lakers — back and forth from pretrial hearings to playoff games.


There are, of course, significant differences between the cases involving Bryant and Rose, most notably that Bryant was facing criminal charges while Rose is only facing a civil suit right now. (The criminal investigation is still open.) However, the two cases provide a unique opportunity to evaluate the ways the legal system, the media, and the NBA have evolved when it come to handling rape allegations — and the ways they haven’t.

While only a judge or jury can determine guilt or innocence, high-profile cases such as these help set the tone for how society as a whole treats violence against women.

Since their very first court filing over a year ago, Rose’s team has been deploying an intense smear-the-victim-and-then-smear-her-some-more strategy, focused more on slut-shaming than the issue of consent.

Their graphic court filings have provided fodder for several salacious TMZ headlines about sex belts and miscarriages and rumored rendezvous between the alleged victim and other NBA stars. The trial so far has been a continuation — escalation, even — of that strategy.

Their strategy is reminiscent of Bryant’s defense in the face of his own rape allegations. While that case never officially went in front of a jury, Bryant’s attorney Pamela Mackey used the preliminary hearing almost solely to shame the alleged victim. Not only did she use the alleged victim’s sexual history against her and publicly accuse her of having sex with three men in three days, but she also used the alleged victim’s real name in court a staggering six times.


“Rose’s attorneys used Pamela Mackey’s playbook,” Katherine Redmond Brown, founder of the National Coalition of Violent Athletes, told ThinkProgress, referring to dogged attempts throughout the past year by Rose’s team to paint Doe as sexually adventurous and remove her veil of anonymity. (Brown was briefly an unpaid adviser to Doe and her legal team when they spoke with media outlets, including ThinkProgress, in September.)

Of course, there’s a reason why high-powered attorneys go this route — it works. The attorney’s aggressive tactics in the Bryant case led the alleged victim to stop cooperating with prosecutors before the trial. And after Rose’s trial on Thursday, he and his team were in a celebratory mood because during a cross-examination, Doe said a few things that were inconsistent with her deposition.

The Rose trial has just begun. There are at least another five days to go; Doe still has to finish being cross-examined by Rose’s attorney, and be cross-examined by the attorneys of the other two defendants. This won’t get any easier for her.


One of the attorneys who will cross-examine her on Friday complained to the judge about how much the alleged victim was crying on the stand, and asked the judge to issue a “no crying” order. (That request was swiftly and firmly denied: “I’m not going to order the witness not to cry any more than I’m going to order her not to breathe,” U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald said.)

“Rose’s attorneys used Pamela Mackey’s playbook.”

It is still technically possible for the case to settle at any minute, and Rose, along with the two other defendants, experts, and witnesses from both sides, still have to take the stand. Most of the case hinges on whether, at the end of this, the jury will believe that Doe was even sober enough to consent to group sex.

Kobe Bryant with Jose Revilla, right, a member of his security team, and his attorney Pamela Mackey, center. Monday, July 19, 2004. CREDIT: Helen D. Richardson, AP
Kobe Bryant with Jose Revilla, right, a member of his security team, and his attorney Pamela Mackey, center. Monday, July 19, 2004. CREDIT: Helen D. Richardson, AP

When Rose takes the stand, Doe’s attorneys are likely to focus in on a few key parts of his deposition: his admittance that he did not know the definition of consent, and the fact that he stated he and his friends did not have a conversation about why they were headed over to Doe’s house at 1:00 in the morning before they left.

(“I said we men. You can assume. Like we leaving to go over to someone’s house at 1:00, there’s nothing to talk about,” Rose said in his deposition.)

This fuzziness surrounding the mere concept of consent is reminiscent of the Bryant case, too. After Bryant’s accuser dropped the charges, he issued a statement where he acknowledged that his accuser had a different interpretation of what occurred that night.

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.

Of course, Bryant maintained his innocent throughout the course of the trial, and always felt he would be exonerated. Rose, too, is putting on a confident front.

“I feel like I didn’t do anything wrong,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I feel like if I just go up there and tell my side of the story I think I’ll be alright.”

The similarities between these cases don’t stop at the defense’s victim-blaming or confusion over what constitutes consent. In seems little has changed in 13 years regarding the way an individual team and the league respond to a star athlete being accused of rape.

Rose was traded to the Knicks from the Chicago Bulls over the summer, and that landed the point guard under the tutelage of Knicks president Phil Jackson, who also happened to be the head coach of the Lakers during Bryant’s rape case.

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson. Friday, June 3, 2016, in Tarrytown, N.Y. CREDIT: Frank Franklin II, AP
New York Knicks president Phil Jackson. Friday, June 3, 2016, in Tarrytown, N.Y. CREDIT: Frank Franklin II, AP

Apparently, that experience didn’t prompt Jackson to take any extra precautions before acquiring Rose. Neither he nor the Knicks (who are no strangers to high-profile sexual misconduct trials following the sexual harassment suit filed against former coach Isaiah Thomas) really looked into the allegations against Rose — which had been public for 10 months — before trading for him.

“Aware of it. Investigation is a big word, But aware of it, yes,” Jackson told reporters when asked about the team’s due diligence in acquiring Rose.

As of the week before the trial, Doe’s attorneys said nobody from the NBA had reached out to them for questioning.

“We’re just going to let the process work itself out. We’re not concerned” Jackson said during a press conference last week, adding that the case wasn’t “keeping [Rose] up at night.”

Meanwhile, as case got closer and closer to trial, the NBA Player’s Association wrote a dotingly reported article focusing on Rose’s off-court contributions and never once mentioning the case; Rose told the media he wasn’t worried about missing practice for the trial because he could do “penitentiary workouts” in the hotel; the NBA has only said that it continues to “monitor developments regarding this litigation; and Rose’s new Knicks teammates have repeatedly praised him for being able to avoid the “distraction” of the trial and stay focused on basketball.

“Distraction” happens to be the same word Jackson used to describe Bryant’s rape case 13 years ago.

“‘Distraction’ is the key word,” Brown said. “It says that [the rape allegations] are a distraction from what’s important, and what’s important is that you perform.

“There’s this undercurrent that being accused of rape is not as big as what you do on the court. By using that word, you’re minimizing not only this entire process, but you’re minimizing what was done to another person and the harm you could have caused.”

According to Brown, public statements about the allegations being merely a distraction and not enough for Rose to lose any sleep over point to a “cultural tone deafness” in the NBA. While the league is often hailed for its progressiveness on social issues — and has issued somewhat harsher disciplines to players convicted of domestic violence in recent years — it has not put preventative programs and policies in place like other sports leagues. Brown — who has worked with Major League Baseball on its education and policies and is very pleased with how they are working so far — says the NBA needs to have a more hands-on approach in both investigating allegations and educating its players.

“There’s this undercurrent that being accused of rape is not as big as what you do on the court.”

“It’s dumbfounding that after Kobe, the NBA hasn’t done any kind of education with these guys. That’s what’s troubling. That’s what’s scary,” she said.

A comprehensive strategy to addressing violence against women within sports goes far beyond punishment. It requires making sure players are as informed about consent as they are about what to do with condoms after sex, and teaching players and coaches how to address these issues in the media when they come out. It’s not about throwing players under the bus, or deeming them guilty until proven innocent; it’s about changing the tone of the conversation by using language that doesn’t marginalize the issue of sexual abuse, and respects the countless numbers of NBA fans who are victims and survivors.

“[Rose’s] comment of, ‘We’re coming over at 1:00 a.m., what’s there to talk about?’ — if the NBA doesn’t look at that comment and think, Oh my god we’re so behind, then I don’t know what else to say,” Brown said.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. In the past 13 years, Brown has seen progress in one very significant area: how the media handles rape allegations against athletes.

“The reporting is better, how it’s being written about is better,” she said. “The media is being more responsible and more aware regarding these character assassinations and character smears.”

Of course, there have still been many missteps, and not just from TMZ and the dark corners of the internet. Just last week, a New York Post columnist described the allegations against Rose as “noise,” and put them on par with his teammate Joakim Noah refusing to attend a team dinner at West Point because he is anti-war.

New York Knicks’ Derrick Rose talks to reporters during a NBA basketball training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. CREDIT: Seth Wenig, AP
New York Knicks’ Derrick Rose talks to reporters during a NBA basketball training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. CREDIT: Seth Wenig, AP

But overall, the media has not been actively perpetuating as many rape myths — “she was asking for it” or “false reporting is common” — as it did while covering the allegations against Bryant, and Doe’s photo hasn’t been plastered all over the National Enquirer like the alleged victim’s was in Bryant’s trial. ESPN announcer Jeff Gundy used the allegations against Rose as a chance to talk about how prevalent violence against women is, and advocate for the NBA to take it more seriously.

Brown believes there is more sympathy and understanding for victims these days, and more resources for them to get help, even if they don’t pursue justice through the legal system.

It is important to note, however, that the Rose case has received a fraction of the coverage the Bryant case did. There are very legitimate reasons for that — this is a civil case, not a criminal one, and Rose is nowhere near the icon that Bryant was and is — but a lot of the inattention is suspicious, too.

“The question is, why aren’t more people writing about it?” Brown said. “And I think you’ll find that same foundation of rape culture, what we believe a true victim looks like a and a true perpetrator looks like.”

In other words, the headlines about group sex and sex belts and money grabs signaled to the public from the beginning that this wasn’t a case that needed to be taken seriously. The victim wasn’t credible enough. She wanted it. She just wants attention and money. She’s distracting from what’s really important.

Those assumptions, well, they weren’t conjured up in a vacuum.

“The rape culture that’s playing in this case is the same culture that was there with Kobe,” Brown said.