Is it time for sainthood or a public reckoning?
I was thinking about that Sunday as my phone beeped with tribute after tribute for Kobe Bryant.
No one can deny Bryant was one of the great athletes of his generation and died much too soon.
But it is also undeniable that a 2003 sexual-assault charge is part of his legacy as well.
Almost all of the tributes I saw following the helicopter crash didn’t mention the rape allegation. The few that did presented it as a challenge the great man overcame.
On Facebook, state Rep. Jehan A. Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, posted over a Bryant family portrait: “The measure of a man is how he treats his family. Everything else is extra.”
She added the hashtags “#familyman #champion #legend #husband #icon #father.”
At best, Bryant was an adulterer. At worst, he was a rapist.
Bryant’s accuser said that they kissed consensually and that she started to pull away when he pulled down his pants. She said he groped her and rubbed against her even as she told him “no” and that he eventually forcibly inserted himself inside her.
At the time, the woman was 19.
She reported her case to the police right away. When they questioned Bryant, he denied three times that he had intercourse with her. His denials ceased when he learned they’d taken semen and blood evidence. He then admitted the two had had sex. But he insisted it was consensual.
The prosecution during discovery presented evidence of numerous lacerations near the accuser’s vagina. The defense said she was promiscuous and eager to meet Bryant.
Today, we call such behavior slut-shaming. Back then, there wasn’t even a comparable term in the lexicon.
Despite a journalism stricture of not revealing identities of alleged sexual-assault victims, the woman’s name and photo appeared on the covers of supermarket tabloids and all over the internet.
My friend and former colleague, Kristy Eckert, covered the case for the local newspaper, the Grand Junction, Colo., Daily Sentinel, back in 2003.
We chatted Monday, and this is what she shared: “It was a much different time than today. These weren’t things that people normally talked openly about. It was before social media. So there was no support system out there for that woman like there is today with the #MeToo movement. That poor girl was really out there by herself. Today, the case would be handled in a much different way.”
After months of having her name dragged through the mud, the accuser said she wouldn’t testify a week before the trial was to begin. Without her cooperation, charges were dropped.
But she did win this apology: “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,” he said in a statement read in court by his lawyer.
“The only two people who do know what happened were the two people who were in that room,” Eckert said. “But the best case that can be made for Kobe is that he had sex with a front-desk clerk he’d known for less than half an hour while his wife and daughter were sitting at home. If she is to be believed, he raped her.”
Bryant later settled a civil lawsuit with the woman for an undisclosed amount and bought his wife a $4 million ring to say he was sorry.
It almost sounds like something out of the Harvey Weinstein playbook: Dole out hush money and make it go away.
“I believe Kobe would be crucified today in the court of public opinion (i.e., Twitter) in a way he wasn’t when it happened,” Eckert said.
I agree with her.
Regular readers of this column know I’ve written about being sexually assaulted when I was 12 by a worker on my family’s farm. It’s an experience that has left lasting scars.
I identify with the accuser in this case. I have been thinking of her this week. What’s it like to see a man you accused of rape lionized in the media?
I can sort of relate; I once Googled my assailant’s name and read that in recent years, he had been welcomed back by his alma mater as a “distinguished alum.” It left me feeling hollow.
How much more must be the case for the woman who accused Kobe Bryant. It is impossible to escape the coverage of his death.
“Those are understandable feelings,” said Carrie Ward, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “After experiencing that kind of trauma, it’s surprising for survivors that the world keeps on going. The perpetrator can go on to have successes of his own.”
Ward’s predecessor, Polly Poskin, added, “No one wants to hear that their hero did a bad thing. People have chosen to forget that this is someone who may have destroyed a person’s life. We don’t want to see flaws in our heroes.”
For that reason, the public needs to be reminded.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and freelance reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.