A new round of Kobe Bryant glorification is due with the announcement of his memorial service Feb. 24 in Los Angeles. Those eulogies will join the thousands of tributes and obituaries and retrospectives written about Bryant since his tragic death in a helicopter crash.
Most of these tributes note Bryant’s complicated legacy. They mention the four airballs in a crucial game. There’s a chapter about Bryant driving all-around nice guy Shaquille O’Neal off the Lakers because Bryant needed to be the star. Yet journalists continue to struggle with the questions of where and when to mention the biggest complication of them all: a 2003 felony rape charge.
CBS’s Gayle King was the latest female journalist to experience internet blowback when she asked WNBA star and Bryant friend Lisa Leslie where the criminal case fits in Bryant’s legacy.
“I think the media should be more respectful at this time,” Leslie said. “It’s like, if you’ve had questions about it, you’ve had many years to ask him about it.”
Leslie makes a great point. The agony that the sports journalism world is experiencing right now over how to write Bryant’s obituary is a self-inflicted wound. It’s their own fault. The sports journalism world was complicit, along with the rest of the star athlete industrial complex, in letting that episode fade into obscurity.
I was in a room full of journalists last week discussing this dilemma when an intern spoke up. She said that until journalism started wrestling with this question in the wake of Bryant’s death, she wasn’t even aware he’d ever been charged with rape. “I was 3,” she said, when the room got silent.
Even when the rape charge is included, in the vast majority of stories the information conveyed from that episode in Bryant’s life is cursory to the point of being inaccurate. There’s the requisite mention of the charge and the dismissal, a quote from the dramatic public apology and a nod to the out-of-court settlement. Still, most stories about Bryant’s legacy do not convey the severity of what’s publicly known. As a result, most people do not know the facts of the case.
This was evident in the exchange between King and Leslie on “CBS This Morning.”
Leslie: “I mean, it went to trial.” King: “It was dismissed because the victim refused to testify.”
The more accurate statement would be: The victim withdrew her cooperation after she was bullied, humiliated, exposed and shamed by Bryant’s defense team and a complicit press corps.
Bryant’s lawyers leaked information about her mental health to reporters, repeated her name over and over again in open court (so much so that the judge admonished them) and inaccurately suggested during the same hearing that she’d slept with three other men on the day she reported the assault — for which they were also admonished, although it didn’t change the headlines. Newspapers named her. And their editors suggested on this very website that doing so was the ethical and fair thing to do.
I’ve worked for almost two decades to train journalists to cover the issue of rape with more accuracy and sensitivity, to recognize how the media have contributed to the mobs that shame victims and ultimately create a misinformed public. The Kobe Bryant case became a case study in what not to do.
What happened after the case is a reminder that as far as we’ve come since 2003, the world of professional sports is more than willing to give talented athletes a pass. Sure, Bryant lost his sponsorships in the immediate aftermath of the settlement. But that money came back as the memory faded, because the men and women who were telling Bryant’s story let it fade. They described the encounter as an extra-marital affair. Even when describing stories that you’ve forgotten, even as the legend played his final season, whenever journalists mentioned the 2003 case, they did so to explain the emergence of Black Mamba.
Lest anyone forget: Between his statement to police and his public apology to the woman, it is on the record that he choked the 19-year-old woman while penetrating with such force that Bryant admitted that it was understandable that she believed she was being raped, even if he didn’t see it that way.
It’s no wonder that Bryant’s fans and admirers feel betrayed. It’s no wonder they get angry, particularly at women, who insist that we know enough about what happened that night in Colorado that we should insist on attaching it to Bryant’s legacy.
When brilliant athletes do horrible things, it doesn’t diminish their athletic achievements to tell the truth about their lives outside the arena. This is not a strategy for every game. But when the story extends to career achievements or sweeping profiles, leaving out significant allegations of violence against women excuses and erases abuses of power by powerful men.
#Metoo is about insisting that powerful men keep their power in check. If we erase their past just because it’s in the past, how will the men who follow in their footsteps know that the standards have changed?
Lisa Leslie is right. Those who celebrated Bryant’s genius had 16 years between his public apology and his tragic death to tell a fuller story. The only option now is try and do better with other athletes.
Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.