Athletes-Fans: A Long-Distance Relationship
By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, October 11, 2003; Page D01
I don't know who is telling the truth in the Kobe Bryant rape trial, but I know this much happened: Two perfect strangers went into a room and shut the door. This violates several rules, among them the first rule of fright flicks, and of dormitory good sense, which says, don't go into a room with someone you don't know, no matter how nice they look, and for God's sake don't close the door.
But here's the odd thing, Kobe Bryant isn't a stranger, is he? She thought she knew him, and we thought we knew him, too. We thought we knew him in part because Sprite told us we knew him, and McDonald's told us we knew him, and Nike told us we knew him -- and one thing they told us is that Kobe Bryant is the Tom Hanks of the NBA.
I daresay the young woman wouldn't have gone into a hotel room alone with a businessman she had just met at the front desk, or a member of a band. It's impossible not to believe her behavior must have been influenced by a false sense that she "knew" Kobe Bryant already.
"In most other cases, putting yourself in that position with a strange guy would be creepy and unsettling, and a situation you'd avoid," says Robert Thompson, who studies the nature of celebrity at Syracuse University, where he is a professor of media and culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. "But with athletes, they're almost part of the family."
Bryant was commercialized into our faux-friend. Sports figures in America are not presented as human beings but as celluloid figments of perfection. We presume an intimate knowledge of their character that we don't presume with other public figures, including actors, rock stars or politicians, and sometimes we have a greater attachment to them because we have an emotional investment in their success, as their consumers and fans.
The result is a weird telescoping effect. In any other trial-watching experience involving a celebrity, we're acquainted with the accused ahead of time, but we don't assume a deeply personal kind of knowledge. We draw conclusions as things play out on CNN or Court TV. But this experience with Bryant is inverted: every time we hear another detail in this hearing, we know him a little less well. He's becoming less and less well known to us by the moment, at best a brisk adulterer and cloistered narcissist, at worst a rapist. The details are unfamiliar and disturbing compared to what we thought we knew. We didn't feel we knew William Kennedy Smith, we just sort of knew who he was. But we thought we knew, incontrovertibly, who Bryant was.
Sports fame is a different kind of fame than any other. We react more intensely to it; it's not just part of the general human temptation to be near a glow (that indiscriminate lure that makes some women in California say they wouldn't mind being groped by Arnold). Sports fame is based on an Olympian kind of greatness that others (even Jack Nicholson) worship, and one that we naively delineate into good and bad, winner and loser. We're continually stunned when an athlete turns out to have complexities. The power of sport-celebrity lies in the fact that it combines the real with the pat -- it's a kind of wishfulness.
The "say it ain't so" view goes back at least as far as the Black Sox scandal in 1919, and it indicates that the nature of sports celebrity has its own categorical rules. Not that they're simple. There is something different going on here than when, say, Robert Blake is on trial. Most of us are pretty well aware that Baretta was just a TV character, so while there is some psychic dislocation when Robert Blake is accused of murder, it's not necessarily profound. When we watch an athlete, we believe he's real. A game is an actual event in which people demonstrate genuine human behavior, and therefore we feel justified in applauding Bryant, and drawing neat and baseless conclusions about his virtues, especially since they're encouraged by his demeanor, looks and commercial enhancement.
Athletes are presented to us as characters, not humans, and what's more they occupy set places in the theatre of our heads. They are either heroes, like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, or anti-heroes, like Allen Iverson or Dennis Rodman. The anti-heroes sell products to people who want a little street cred, so they can swirl around in the demimonde, and communicate via their sneakers that no one should be sure what they're capable of. We permit redemption, witness the transformation of Ray Lewis. But the main thing we demand is character definition.
Brabantio: Thou art a villain. Iago: You are -- a senator.
Why does Bryant's specific brand of celebrity have implications in a date rape case? Because it goes to the issue of consent. The clear strategy of his defense attorney, Pamela Mackey, is to depict the accuser as promiscuous and the interactions between them as murky, and to plunge us all, including a judge and jury, into the eternally testy discussion of what sexual rules are: What was she doing in a room with him alone, anyway? That question has an edge -- she was there voluntarily, the door was closed, and doesn't that indicate consent -- but less of one than it might. Bryant's angelic brand of celebrity makes her presence in the room instantly more explicable.
"Celebrity adds political complexities to the whole what-was-she-doing-there question," says Thompson.
Do you cut the alleged victim slack for being there because of the presumed-knowledge factor? Where were the lines of sexual intimacy drawn? "Those are fluid lines, and the nature of celebrity increases the fluidity of those lines," Thompson says. "The whole definition of consent becomes almost incomprehensibly complicated."
Some people want desperately to believe that Kobe Bryant is not a stranger. Just as some people want to believe that rich people are virtuous and their money is a sign of intellect, and some people want to believe that an artist or actor who is capable of beauty couldn't be inwardly corrupt. We especially embrace this kind of fallacy with athletes. We're constantly in search of evidence that they are angels, and that their astonishing physical gifts are actually merited, and almost no amount of evidence to the contrary will shake our faith in that idea. Why?
Because the alternative is to admit gifts are randomly distributed. We're all, to a certain extent, sufferers of the sad but persistent desire to believe in the fantasy of the athlete-as-noble, because it's basically the hope that outward talent is a reflection of inner decency.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company