Kobe Bryant's Death: The Nuance of Sexual Assault & Grief

On January 26th, Kobe Bryant, NBA star and cultural icon died in a helicopter crash along with 8 others in Calabasas, California. We’ve all read the news. Seen the pictures of the flames as they engulfed one of the great titans of our generation. But as nine lights faded from the sky, so started a much sparked debate about grief and sexual assault.

I’m not going to pretend like I was a fan. I was very young when Kobe was the big catch. I can still remember my guy friends wearing his jersey and the kids I hung out with on the school yard picking sides. Are you Kobe or are you Jordan? Every boy wanted to be him- white, black, asian, it didn’t matter- and everyone was wearing his shoes. He was a cultural icon not only for what he did for the sport, but for what he did for black boys everywhere. He showed you can rise.

He won an Academy Award, became an entrepreneur, a tech mogul, and a Hollywood star. All of this I found out this week because to me Kobe was another basketball star the other boys loved. It is suffice to say that what I knew of him were his shoes and the look on my grandmother’s face when she ducked her head down and rocked in her chair to say as delicately as she could to a kid- “He hurt that woman”. And I knew what that meant. I can still feel what it is today. But I can also feel the sadness of my teacher’s heart when he lifts up his limited edition Nike shoes and takes a moment of silence. There is pain all around.

With all the facebook arguments and twitter vitriol it’s important to remind ourselves of the stories we had selectively forgotten when we were celebrating the victories of others.

The sexual assault case facts: in 2003 Bryant was charged with assaulting a 19 year old. The case was dropped before it was scheduled to go to trial and settled outside of court. A lot of the argument against this assault has been that the woman was unwilling to testify. According to court documents the prosecutors had a strong case- the victim had bruises on her neck, tears at her vaginal wall, both her underwear and Bryant’s shirt were bloody. All of these are indicators of a struggle. There was plenty of evidence to suggest not just rape- but violent rape.

It is no mystery why women in general have trouble going to the police or rape cases have trouble making it to trial. Litigation lasted a year against the hottest N.B.A. player at the moment. The Lakers at the time made the N.B.A. Finals and Bryant’s career never stopped before or after the trial. While the victim was a hotel concierge with no celebrity or money backing her. To go against a Titan under the watchful eye of the world is a very tall order to ask of a rape victim who is already dealing with complex trauma. And while Bryant formally apologized to the public, worked to advocate for women in basketball, and became a philanthropist- it does not change the fact that this woman never got justice. It is clear in his statement-

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual,” he said in statement, “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”

It is important to let that sink in. That even with bruises and vaginal tears- he apologized by gaslighting her. And that cannot be undone. And that is not erased by all the good things he did after, just as all the good things he did after are not for nothing.

Race plays a huge roll in this and we can’t ignore it. Kobe Bryant is a huge cultural icon in the black community. He was hero, father, and brother. And nearly an hour after he died Facebook was lit up with mentions of his past crimes wanting to villainize him. While it should be noted that after Bowie died no one even mentioned the 15 year olds he slept with (statutory rape) or that there are many white celebrities that get away with rape by simply changing their ‘image’ after while. It is easy for white America to condemn a black hero after his death because that is the trend that has always been set. But I would also argue that even in this, there is no justice, because that woman's voice is still erased. Silenced by gag order and bruises.

In this ‘Me Too’ era when sexual assault and rape is at the forefront of all of our minds- we beg the question “What does justice look like?”. And even after “What does change look like?”. We often want to make our celebrities black and white characters in a movie. Villain or hero- but even our cultural icons are human. And we, as we watch them growing up, making them into our missing parents and our imaginary best friends, find it hard to believe that they can be both. Even as a survivor myself I look at what Kobe Bryant has done with his life and I revel in the idea that he gave so much life meaning to so many kids in America who wanted to rise the way he did. More so that he was a huge advocate for women in the sport. But you can be both an advocate and a rapist. As we move forward in this new era where the conversation has just gotten started it is still hard for me to not define the perpetrator from the crimes when the victim has had no voice. And yet, I realize how nuanced that is when we say the victim is not just a victim but a survivor.

It is okay to mourn the loss of Kobe Bryant as your hero. It is also okay to hate what he did. Both can exist.

As a rape survivor I always tell myself- it does not define me. I am more than what is done to me. But I cannot help being reminded that it does every time I see a rape scene on a tv show or the face of a known perpetrator on the news or when I read the part about the victims bloody underwear. I am physically ill. Reminded of the things that were once done to me. Because being raped and raping- is like committing a murder. You are taking someone’s light from them. Little deaths all over their body, a reminder of a time when they had no humanity, when they were a thing. And perhaps we should start looking at rape as if it changes both the victim and the perpetrator. So that we can find healing and solace for both- because both are traumatizing. And what is lacking more than anything in a culture of young men growing in this ‘me too’ era is empathy on all levels. So, maybe getting back to the ABCs of empathy is important here:

- maybe I am also more than what I have done to others, but don’t get to decide about how others feel about what I did. They deserve feelings too. Because they have to live with what I have done to them, just as I have to live with what I have done.

It is balance. It is the first step in healing.

Now, we don’t get to decide how the victim healed or how Kobe made peace with what he did. I hope both happened. I hope they both found love and freedom. But what we grapple with now is how we as a culture death with sexual assault even after death. I joke to my friend- “All our heroes are villains.” Because there is truth in that. To become a hero is to have great power, and it is rare to have great power and not have done something terrible along the way. But that doesn’t change that Kobe was a hero to some.

So mourn the death of Kobe. But also mourn the life taken from the victim. Do not let her memory be belittled or slandered because ‘she wouldn’t testify’. Know her pain just as you know the pain of all the people mourning their heroes death. More so- send love and prayers out to all the people who are grieving this terrible loss. Because all loss is terrible. Death is about the people who loved you and they deserve to feel love too.

Grief can be healed over time.

There is always hope.