But it’s important to think, too, about why each of those elements must be mentioned, and to think of Bryant’s life not only from Bryant’s perspective. Lives are not clean. Legacies are messy. Memories are personal. It’s worth talking through.
There are people who never met Bryant who are in pain, real pain, because of the helicopter crash Sunday that took Bryant’s life — along with the lives of his daughter Gianna and seven others. He touched them, be it through his basketball skill or his unrelenting work ethic or his public embracing of fatherhood or his support for women’s sports — or some combination of it all. That is real. It counts. He meant something to millions, and that’s powerful.
Allow, though, for the other reality. On Monday, there were hundreds or thousands — pick a number — of women sitting at desks or driving in cars or otherwise trying to get through their day who processed the news of Bryant’s death from a wholly different perspective. For them, the accompanying tributes brought pain of a different sort. They are victims of rape or sexual assault, women who had never confronted their assailants, women who had tried to bury what happened. For them, the deification not only doesn’t sit right. It feels awful.
“The totality of anybody’s life is not sanitary,” said Kathy Redmond Brown, the founder of an advocacy group called the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “The totality of anybody’s life, especially one on the scale of his — such a visible person — influences a lot of people for the good and the bad.
“But that case did so much with regard to sexual assault. It impacted the way the entire society viewed it. It impacted whether victims reported it. It impacted the way the media reported it.”
And that must be part of what people remember, too.
All these things can be true: Kobe Bryant was adored and respected by the sports world for what he accomplished and the manner in which he competed. In basketball retirement, he used his celebrity to the best of ends, trying to set an example for kids in both word and deed. He loved and respected his daughters and wanted them to excel in whatever world they chose. And 17 years ago, he made a mistake that affected not just himself and his family, but people we never think much about anymore.
To say that last point makes him “complicated” is a convenient way of minimizing the incident in a Colorado hotel room in the summer of 2003, when Bryant had sex with a 19-year-old woman. That woman, Bryant said later, felt “she did not consent to this encounter.” That matters.
Fit that encounter and that admission into the totality of Bryant’s life however you want. In the scope of 41 years — of a basketball career and fatherhood, of a creative and competitive creature — maybe it shouldn’t be solely defining. But maybe, too, it shouldn’t be completely drowned out by the torrent of accomplishments and adulation.
Inconvenient or not, Bryant’s actions in that hotel room all those years ago are a piece of his puzzle. But stop there for a moment, and think of who else’s puzzle it affects. The #metoo movement has, thankfully, given a voice to victims of sexual assault who not very long ago didn’t have one. So just as it can feel right to revel in the memories Bryant created on the court and lament the opportunities he won’t have to create off it, it can feel right to view Bryant’s death as a reminder that the voices of accusers and victims deserve to be heard.
“To cement his legacy,” Redmond Brown said, “she had to be silent.”
Silent by choice or silent by terms of the settlement of a civil case, it almost doesn’t matter. She was silent. He had his second chance.
This is hard, marrying all this in the days after such a tragedy. It can seem indelicate to review the worst part of someone’s life in the hours after his death. But it’s also necessary.
The details of the incident, from the woman’s account to police, are tough to read. That does not make them true. Bryant was arrested and charged with sexual assault. That does not make him guilty. His accuser ultimately decided not to testify at trial, and the charges were dropped. That does not mean she didn’t tell the truth.
Remember how Bryant acknowledged the incident and apologized to the woman in a statement after the criminal case was dropped.
“I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” he said. “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.”
From the day he made that statement, in the fall of 2004, Kobe Bryant went on with rebuilding his life. He won titles and his MVP award. He had three more girls. He won two Olympic gold medals. He retired and reinvented himself. That’s all admirable.
But he also settled a civil case with his accuser, who has not been heard from since. He moved on. For some people, such a seamless transition to the rest of his life must come with acrid resonance. They are the people whose lives have been damaged by powerful and successful people. They can’t move on, or at least not as easily.
More than 15 years ago, maybe those questions — about power dynamics, about why victims don’t always speak up — weren’t being asked as readily. Now, given #metoo, they’re front and center. Kobe Bryant’s death doesn’t have to be completely consumed by trying to find consensus on the answers. But it should further highlight that these are questions with which all of us should be wrestling, not just those who have no choice but to do so.