When Kobe Bryant retired two and a half years ago, I wrote a piece about the legacy of his 2003 rape case. In my reporting, I noted that the case laid forth a blueprint for victim-blaming, damaging media narratives, and image rehabilitation that many high-profile figures have followed in the intervening years.
Since then, thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, society has re-examined the way our power structures boost alleged abusers and steamroll alleged victims. Yet despite this, Bryant’s power and influence have only grown exponentially.
Over the past few years, I’ve uncomfortably watched as Bryant has shown up court-side at women’s basketball games and gymnastics competitions, posed for pictures with respected activists, sat through softball interviews with typically hard-hitting journalists, and even become an Academy Award winner in this post-Weinstein world.
It’s disturbing and unfortunate how nearly everyone in the mainstream media has permitted Bryant to dodge any semblance of a cross examination.
So, I was incredibly intrigued this week when I was alerted to a feature published in the Washington Post entitled “The Revisionist,” which was promoted as a piece containing exclusive interviews with Bryant himself, and openly reckoned with the role the 2003 rape case has played in Bryant’s narrative.
Because of the framing, I instantly hoped that this profile — which was about 6,000 words, had an extreme amount of access to its subject, and was written by a journalist I very much admire, Kent Babb — signaled that Bryant was finally willing to directly address the rape allegations and the case that followed.
It didn’t. Yes, the story mentions the 2003 incident in which a 19-year-old concierge at a hotel in Colorado said Bryant invited her into his hotel room, grabbed her by the neck, pulled down her panties, pushed her against a chair, and raped her, despite the fact that she says she tearfully said “no” not once, but twice. (Details that Babb does not address.)
But more than 3,000 words into the article — which goes into great detail describing Bryant’s creative genius, work ethic, and high-profile entertainment projects for children — the article has a disclaimer.
Bryant and the woman settled a civil case for an undisclosed sum in March 2005. Citing their client’s agreement with Bryant, attorneys for the accuser told The Washington Post that she is not permitted to comment for this article. In multiple interviews with The Post over several months, Bryant also refused to discuss the woman or the specific incident.
That’s right. Not only does Bryant not directly address the rape accusation and case, it seems he is still enforcing the non-disclosure agreement in the settlement, so his alleged victim isn’t allowed to speak out either.
After I read that, I couldn’t help but wonder: what in the world are we doing here? Why are we mining his contrived children’s book characters for clues, parsing his dialogue-writing process for any insight into his thinking, and waxing poetic about the space between hero and villain?
Why are we giving Bryant — and, by extension, the entertainment and business career he built on the backs of the public’s indifference to sexual assault — all of this publicity and legitimacy if he won’t even meaningfully address the thing this story is ostensibly about?
I don’t know if Bryant will ever talk about the alleged rape, or if he will ever let his victim do the same. If he does ever talk, I don’t know if his answers would make me feel better or worse. But I keep thinking about a line in Monica Lewinsky’s recent piece for Vanity Fair about Bill Clinton: “If you want to know what power looks like, watch a man safely, even smugly, do interviews for decades, without ever worrying whether he will be asked the questions he doesn’t want to answer.”
The only thing I know for sure is that Bryant won’t address the rape case and its legacy if he can keep making money, commanding media attention, and garnering awards by continuously offering, “no comment.”
The last words Bryant has ever said about the alleged rape itself came in the statement he released when their settlement was announced in 2005. The words are staggering. (Emphasis mine.)
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.
Bryant’s entire defense during the case was that yes, he and the concierge had sex. But it was consensual. His attorneys and the media slut-shamed the teenager to nauseating degrees, and trotted out her sexual history and sex drive so as to nail it into everyone’s heads that this was an extremely promiscuous young girl.
And yet, in his final words on the encounter, Bryant relented and said that she didn’t feel it was consensual.
That statement, I believe, deserves a few follow-ups. But he hasn’t provided any in the 13 years since, and nobody seems to mind.
Perhaps this wouldn’t bother me as much were it not for the company he keeps. At the Oscars, which directly honored and applauded the #TimesUp movement, Bryant posed with very willing progressive feminist advocates including Frances McDormand, Allison Janney, and Lin Manuel Miranda.
He is a big fan of women’s basketball, and the sport itself doesn’t just embrace his fandom, it heavily promotes it. Players such as Breanna Stewart and Candace Parker take photos with him and actively seek his advice.
In the Washington Post article, Oprah, Shonda Rhimes, and Debbie Allen are all mentioned as Bryant’s mentors, and sing his praises. Bryant’s circle has become the personification of cognitive dissonance.
And look, I believe in second chances, in forgiveness. I truly believe that people can do horrific things and then learn from them. People are complicated, and there is a certain beauty in that. But forgiveness and redemption must be earned, and that requires a person to at least try to reckon with what they’ve done. There has to be an owning up, a discussion of lessons learned. Experts I’ve talked with over the years truly believe that there are women who haven’t come forward about their own sexual assaults simply because they saw what Bryant’s legal team and the media did to his alleged victim and fear it will be done to them. It had lasting consequences, not just on his alleged victim, who likely came across that Washington Post feature this week, but for survivors everywhere. He needs to answer for that.
Instead, the only real answers Bryant provided in the piece were details about how he moved on from what happened in Colorado, and how he convinced the rest of the world to move on, too.
When discussing why a few of his sponsors dropped him in the wake of the sexual assault scandal, Bryant said, “They didn’t want the gritty shit.” (That’s right. He referred to rape allegations as “gritty shit.”) Then, he said he adopted a “Fuck it!” attitude to deal with the press.
“During the Colorado situation, I said: ‘You know what? I’m just going to be me. I’m just going to be me.’ F— it. If I don’t like a question from a reporter, I’m going to say it,” he says. “If they ask me a question about this thing, I’m just going to tell them the truth.”
Finally, Bryant adopted an entire new persona, “Black Mamba,” which apparently allowed him to “reveal the darkness that had always lurked inside him” since he “could no longer convincingly portray his innocence.”
Creating an alternate persona, he says now, was the only way he could mentally move beyond the events of Colorado.
“I don’t know what would’ve happened had I not figured it out,” he says. “Because the whole process for me was trying to figure out how to cope with this. I wasn’t going to be passive and let this thing just swallow me up. You’ve got a responsibility: family, baby, organization, whole city, yourself — how do you figure out how to overcome this? Or just deal with it and not drown from this thing? And so it was this constant quest: to figure out how do you do that, how do you do that, how do you do that? So I was bound to figure something out because I was so obsessively concerned about it.”
That’s right. Bryant “overcame” having forcible sex with a woman who “feels that she did not consent to the encounter” by embracing “evil.” This so-called persona unleashed gay slurs, fought with teammates, and answered to nobody. Along the way, people lauded him as a champion for women and a friend to progressive activists, and an Oscar winner with a burgeoning entertainment empire. He gets a 6,000 word profile written by one of the top newspapers in the country, without even having to answer the question the story seemingly was written solely to ask.
In my opinion, the most revealing part of the article was when Babb wrote, “[S]ome within Bryant’s circle suggest he has convinced himself that Colorado either never happened or that, if he continues flooding his résumé with accomplishments, the public will neither remember nor care.”
Thanks in part to his upcoming children’s podcast, which the Post mentions by name five times, it seems that the latter is true.
CORRECTION: The article originally stated the Washington Post article was over 10,000 words. It was about 6,000 words.