The legacy of the Kobe Bryant rape case

FILE — In this July 18, 2003, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, hold hands during a news conference at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. CREDIT: JEROME T. NAKAGAWA, AP
FILE — In this July 18, 2003, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, hold hands during a news conference at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. CREDIT: JEROME T. NAKAGAWA, AP

On June 30, 2003, Kobe Bryant arrived at the Cordillera Lodge and Spa in Edwards, Colorado. After a frustrating season that saw the Los Angeles Lakers fail to win a fourth straight championship, Bryant was in town for an operation on his knee.

A 19-year-old concierge at the hotel showed the superstar and his security team to their rooms, and caught his eye. Bryant, a new father of a six-month-old daughter, made small talk with the blonde, and once they arrived at his room, he took her aside and requested that she come back later to give him a private tour of the hotel. She obliged, and after the tour and mild flirtations, Bryant invited her into his hotel room.

Just five minutes later, the woman exited the room, disheveled and reportedly distraught. Her underwear was bloody, as was Bryant’s shirt.

She told her friend, a bellboy at the hotel, about the encounter that night, and after making sure the woman got home safely, the bellboy went home and told his father. The next day, after recounting the incident to her mother, the woman reported it to police.

Whether or not Bryant and the woman engaged in sexual activity that night is not in question — Bryant admitted to cheating on his wife, Vanessa. But the woman he claimed to have committed adultery with said she did not consent to that activity.

And thus, those five minutes became the center of one of the most high-profile rape cases of all time. As Jeffrey Scott Shapiro put it in his book, Kobe Bryant: The Game Of His Life, the case came down to two words: yes or no.

Bryant is set to play his final NBA game on Wednesday. Tickets are going for $25,000, and he’s being celebrated and honored by athletes and movie stars, rap artists and clothing brands. His career as a basketball player certainly merits that. In 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant won five NBA championships, one MVP award, and was named to the NBA All-Star team 18 times. He is, without a doubt, a legend.

But as fun as it is to reflect on his career and the mark he left on the sport, it’s also important to remember what happened off the court. Though the criminal charges were ultimately dropped after 15 months and the civil case was settled behind closed doors, the Kobe Bryant rape case left behind a legacy of victim blaming, media sensationalism, and image repair that still influences society — and other high-profile rape cases — to this day.

Victim blaming

It didn’t take long for a bonafide media circus to descend upon the small Colorado town. On July 2, both the alleged victim and Bryant were taken to the hospital for examinations. There was a small bruise around her neck, and she had tears on her vaginal wall. An arrest warrant was issued for Bryant on July 4th, and on July 18th, charges were filed.

As soon as the charges against Bryant became public, media and fans alike honed in on the alleged victim. Who was this young girl who had the audacity to threaten one of the greatest, most well-respected athletes on the planet with life in prison?

She was a sexually active teenager who had attempted suicide twice and been briefly hospitalized for mental illness. She was an aspiring singer who had once tried out for American Idol. She had a lingering crush on her ex-boyfriend. So very quickly, a picture was painted of a fame-hungry, unstable woman who would do anything for attention.

Kobe Bryant, left, and his attorney Pamela Mackey, center. CREDIT: Helen D. Richardson, AP
Kobe Bryant, left, and his attorney Pamela Mackey, center. CREDIT: Helen D. Richardson, AP

Unfortunately, narratives like this seem to emerge almost any time a woman accuses a famous man of violence. But what made the Bryant case notable was the lengths to which the defense team would go to encourage that victim-blaming narrative.

“In the Kobe Bryant case, it was abominable how the accuser was treated. Everyone was at fault,” Mark Shaw, an attorney and author who covered the case for ESPN and USA Today, told ThinkProgress. “This poor woman, they wore her down, and it happened from the first hearings.”

The preliminary hearing in October 2003 was supposed to merely be a chance for the judge to decide whether there was enough evidence to require a trial. But Bryant’s attorney, Pamela Mackey, used it as a chance to smear the alleged victim’s reputation.

Not only did Mackey use the alleged victim’s name a staggering six times during the hearing, but when she was presented with the woman’s vaginal injuries, Mackey used the victim’s sexual history against her. The high-powered lawyer brought the hearing to a screeching halt, asking, “Could it be that [the alleged victim’s] injuries were caused by having sex with three men in three days?”

As Shapiro wrote in his book, Mackey’s tactic was an effective one, because that became the story of the day, and not the evidence displayed by Deputy District Attorney Gregg Crittenden and Eagle County Sheriff’s Detective Doug Winters.

And that evidence, such as the retelling of the statements the alleged victim gave to officers the day after the attack, deserved attention.

When Bryant began groping her, the woman said she tried to flee but the athlete barred her way and grabbed her by the neck, Winters said. “She was afraid that he was going to choke her.”

Then, the woman said, Bryant turned her around, pushed her against a chair, pulled down her panties and raped her. She tearfully said “no” twice but was ignored, Winters said. At one point, Bryant “stated that he liked Vail, Colo.,” he said.

Five minutes later, it was over, Winters said, and Bryant made her kiss his genitals. Then he told her to “go clean up.”

Just days before the criminal case went to trial, the alleged victim decided to stop cooperating and the charges were dropped. Up until that moment, she had been put through the ringer. She had friends, acquaintances, and even strangers accept money from the tabloids or gifts from television producers to tell stories — some the truth with a spin to it, others outright lies. Photos of the alleged victim were also leaked and plastered all over magazines in the supermarket. Even the Eagle County court contributed to the onslaught, by inadvertently making private court documents public.

As Shaw wrote at the time, “with her identity known, her past sex life revealed, her mental state common knowledge, and her life in shambles due to constant anguish about the motive behind the charges, it is no wonder that she threw in the towel.”

How many women remember the Kobe Bryant case and don’t file a rape charge?

Because the case received so much coverage, everyone, even those not paying close attention, saw what happened to the alleged victim. It’s nearly impossible to measure that impact. According to Shapiro’s book, however, there are other women who had similar encounters with Bryant — one in particular who was able to escape before an assault occurred — who wouldn’t cooperate with the Colorado trial because of how the alleged victim in that case was treated.

In the immediate aftermath of the hearing, it was no surprise that sexual assault reporting declined dramatically at the alleged victim’s school, the University of Northern Colorado.

“How many women remember the Kobe Bryant case and don’t file a rape charge?” Shaw said.

It’s hard to tell if this case impacted national reporting statistics, but 68 percent of rapes still go unreported. And it’s worth noting that in other cases where a high-profile athlete — such as Greg Hardy, Ben Roethlisberger, and Patrick Kane — has been accused of violence against women, the alleged victims have been smeared in a similar way. In the Kane case, it was leaked that traces of DNA from other men were found in the alleged victim’s underwear. Hardy’s alleged victim had her drug use and relationship with rapper Nelly dragged through the media. One of the two women who accused Roethlisberger of rape was said to have a “history of using sex and lies to get what she wanted.” None of these women decided to cooperate with or pursue criminal charges.

One positive, if there is such a thing, to come out of the Bryant case was the improved rape shield laws in Colorado. Rape shield laws are supposed to protect the victim’s identity in cases and limit the ability for her past sexual activity to be brought into evidence. According to Karen Steinhauser, a Family Law and Criminal Defense attorney in Colorado, at the time of the Bryant hearing, rape shield laws didn’t apply to preliminary hearings in the state, which is why Mackey could push the envelope so far. Now they do.

However, rape shield laws are still far from perfect, and many still allow judges plenty of loopholes to permit an alleged victim’s sexual history into evidence. Linda Seabrook, general counsel for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit that aims to end domestic violence and sexual assault, said those loopholes perpetuate the mistrust of the judicial system. And that mistrust will lead fewer victims to seek justice.

“Sexual assault has always been one of the lowest reported crimes,” Steinhauser said. “There’s this mentality of blame the victim, but victims do enough blaming of themselves. So many victims decide it’s not worth it.”

The media’s ability to perpetuate rape myths

While Bryant’s defense team and the tabloids were certainly responsible for festering the victim-blaming culture of the case, the mainstream media itself didn’t do much to squelch it.

“The media in the Bryant case was as guilty as anyone else,” Shaw said. “They were enamored by Kobe, a good looking star, married with a baby. They wanted to get an interview with him, and the poor girl was left to suffer.”

Renae Franiuk, a professor of psychology at Aurora University and an avid sports fan, watched the media coverage of the case with interest, and noticed that a lot of it seemed to be slanted against the alleged victim. She was curious as to whether she was just overly sensitive to it due to her job, or if it was an actual problem, so she set out to do a study.

For the study, Franiuk honed in on rape myths, which are “generalized and widely held beliefs about sexual assault that serve to trivialize the sexual assault or suggest that a sexual assault did not actually occur.”

She then divided the myths into standard common categories, and studied both articles and headlines about the Bryant case for endorsements or challenges of these myths. She also studied the articles for positive and negative statements about the alleged victim and Bryant, and headlines for the choice of the word “accuser” versus “alleged victim,” since the former has been proven to elicit sympathy with the accused.

CREDIT: Sage Publishing, Rene Franiuk
CREDIT: Sage Publishing, Rene Franiuk

Franiuk’s findings were staggering. First of all, only 13 of the 156 articles studied actually countered rape myths — that is, mentioned how rarely women lie about rape, or how entering a hotel room with a man isn’t the same as consenting to sex with him. On average, there were 1.66 myth-endorsing statements per article, with over 65 percent of the articles having at least one endorsing statement.

Additionally, 27 percent of the articles studied had positive comments about Bryant as a person or an athlete, while only 5 percent of the articles had positive statements about the victim as a person. And whereas 42.3 percent of the articles questioned the victim’s honesty, only 7.7 percent questioned Kobe’s.

Though less extreme, a similar pattern was discovered in headlines, which are often the only information readers take in. Almost 10 percent of the headlines studied endorsed rape myths. Headlines used the word “accuser” 23 percent of the time, compared to about 1 percent each for “alleged victim” or “victim.” Overall, 11 percent of the headlines were pro-Bryant, while only 5.2 percent pro-alleged victim.

Why does this even matter? Well, Franiuk’s study accounted for that too, and found that after reading articles that endorsed rape myths, people were far more likely to side with the accused than the alleged victim. Whether they intended to or not, the media shaped the public’s perception of the case.

Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, right, holds up balloons that his family brought out to him during a ceremony to celebrate Bryant becoming third on the NBA all-time scoring list. CREDIT: Mark J. Terrill, AP
Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, right, holds up balloons that his family brought out to him during a ceremony to celebrate Bryant becoming third on the NBA all-time scoring list. CREDIT: Mark J. Terrill, AP

“The rape myths perpetuated in the media are a reflection of women’s inferior status in our culture and our culture’s defensive reaction to a heinous crime,” she wrote in the study. “Moreover, rape myths in the media teach rape myths to those who do not already hold them, strengthen rape myths in those who already do, and trigger rape myths in those who are ready to use them.”

While there haven’t been similar studies on recent rape cases, there is reason to believe that many of the problems in Franiuk’s 2008 study are still present in media today. When NHL star Patrick Kane was accused of rape last fall, many reporters chose to focus on his athletic talents while perpetuating rape myths and spreading unsubstantiated rumors about the alleged victim. Meanwhile, when alleged victims don’t go through with pressing charges or an undisclosed civil settlement is reached, athletes such as Ben Roethlisberger, who was accused of sexual assault by two women, are allowed to let their performance in their chosen sport serve as redemption.

“These people believing these myths don’t want people to be sexually assaulted, and, ironically, that’s why they don’t believe the women,” Franiuk said. “It’s easier to believe the myths because you don’t want to believe that sexual assault is possible, but then that disbelief just makes the problem of sexual assault worse.”

The only way to stop this cycle, according to Franiuk, is by getting educated about the issue and speaking up about it. Everyone needs to be educated about both healthy sex and sexual assault at a young age, and journalists in particular need to know how to report it. (There are great resources available for reporters on the topic.) Once educated, they need to be outspoken against it — Franiuk particularly mentioned the significance of Terry Bradshaw passionately speaking out against Hardy last fall.

“We need media members to be more unapologetically vocal about this,” she said.

There Is life after A rape accusation

Not even 24 hours after the charges were dropped in the Bryant rape case, the media had moved away from questions of guilt or innocence, motive and opportunity, and on to more pressing matters: Would Kobe ever be able to repair his image?

Despite the fact that the dust from the criminal case hadn’t even settled yet, it was a legitimate question. After all, both McDonalds and Sprite had suspended relationships with the superstar after the charges were filed, and even if people didn’t pay attention to the sordid details of the case — the alleged victim’s blood on his shirt, the vaginal tearing — there was still the fact that he had cheated on his wife. Bryant was no longer the NBA’s ultimate family man.

Nearly 13 years later, it’s safe to say that Kobe’s image is just fine. Last year, he was 10th on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes, and between broadcasting and endorsements, coaching and management, his future is filled with opportunities all over the world.

“He’s got real international cachet and popularity,” Bob Dorfman, editor of the Sports Marketers Scouting Report, told CNN.

These days, most people seem to remember the infamous $4 million “apology ring” that Bryant bought his wife after the charges became public more than they remember the accusations. People remember that the charges were dropped, but they don’t remember the statement that Kobe released when they were:

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’s privilege has a lot to do with how quickly he has bounced back, but it’s also worth noting that this theory — that women accuse high-profile athletes of rape or domestic violence to become rich and famous and destroy the life of the accused — doesn’t actually pan out in reality.

While Jameis Winston — who was accused of raping a fellow student at Florida State University — has gone on to be an NFL star, his alleged victim had to drop out of school due to the abuse she received. Hardy’s ex-girlfriend recently said that she’s had to move twice, change her phone number multiple times, and even consider changing her name due to the harassment she has received. Hardy, meanwhile, was signed with the Dallas Cowboys even after the domestic abuse allegations, and is reportedly only having a hard time finding a spot on an NFL team now because he was often late to practice. Kane’s alleged victim reportedly had to relocate as well, while Kane is winning awards for his play this season.

It’s impossible to know what Bryant’s present status would be if his rape case had gone differently — if the accuser’s past had not been viciously put on trial, if the media hadn’t irresponsibly condoned rape myths, and if Bryant and his alleged victim had both gotten their day in court.

President Barack Obama stands with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. CREDIT: Charles Dharapak, AP
President Barack Obama stands with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. CREDIT: Charles Dharapak, AP

There’s also no way of knowing what would happen if the charges had been brought today.

Ever since the video of NFL running back Ray Rice punching out his then-fiance in an Atlantic City elevator became public, the media has been slightly more careful with the language it uses when talking about alleged victims and violence against women. There is also an increased awareness about the inadequacies of the justice system, and more pressure on leagues such as the NBA to independently investigate and punish the personal conduct of its players. So if Bryant was charged with sexual assault presently, it’s likely the NBA would be under pressure to take disciplinary action.

However, that’s no guarantee that things would have turned out differently. After all, the victim-blaming tactics used in Kobe’s case, both by the defense team and the media, have been utilized in big-time cases recently, and the results have been similarly successful for the athletes.

All we know for sure is that 13 years ago, Bryant’s alleged victim was forced to move out of her hometown due to safety concerns. She was last seen during the civil case, married and pregnant, and hasn’t been heard of in public since, except for the occasional rumor on the underbelly of the internet.

Meanwhile, Bryant is now a father of two. He and Vanessa briefly filed for divorce, but have since reunited. Kobe was able to finish out his career with the Lakers, winning two more NBA championships and climbing to third on the list of all-time scorers in NBA history. He’s an icon of the sport, and of our culture.

But as the legend bids goodbye, those close to the case can’t help but wonder, “What if?”

“Every time I see Kobe Bryant on television playing basketball, I think about how lucky he is,” Shaw said. “Based on the evidence I knew about… he should be in prison.”