Mourning Kobe Bryant means reckoning with his past

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Mourning Kobe Bryant means reckoning with his past

Hanson Dai I Art Director

Hanson Dai I Art Director

Hanson Dai I Art Director

Hanson Dai I Art Director

Ava Lemos, Senior Staff Writer

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Content Warning: Please be advised that this article contains content related to sexual assault and rape. 

Many were left reeling after the sudden death of Kobe Bryant on Jan. 26. People across the globe mourned him, his daughter and the seven others who died in the helicopter crash that fateful Sunday morning. Memorial tweets poured in from prominent figures, including Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who wrote, “Kobe will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes.” This narrative, however, sweeps a major piece of Bryant’s life under the rug: his 2003 rape case.

Bryant, then 24, was arrested in July 2003 by the Eagle, Colorado, police following a sexual assault complaint. After his arrest, his defense team launched a coordinated media campaign to smear his accuser. Following this campaign, Bryant’s accuser declined to testify in criminal court, and the case was settled privately as a civil suit.

This incident served merely as a minor stain on Kobe’s long term reputation, one that the Los Angeles Times only passively mentioned shortly after Bryant’s death and many chose to wholly ignore. One of the few reporters who mentioned the assault shortly after Bryant’s passing, Felicia Sonmez, faced so much backlash that she was placed on administrative leave, though she has since been cleared.

The lack of dialogue surrounding Bryant’s assault raises the issue of how we should mourn athletes with problematic pasts. This question, however, cannot be addressed without reflecting on the way we idolize and glorify athletes before their passing.

Athletes are treated like gods: kids put posters of them up on their walls, shout their names when playing trash can basketball, and memorize their stats like the words to their favorite songs. In the media, this adulation is echoed, with the discussion around athletes often limited to their good deeds. This continues to an even greater degree in death. People talk about Kobe’s activism, about how he was “an ordinary dad and friend” leading up to the tragedy that took his life. Few and far between are the articles that dare to tarnish the legacy of a man who has been made out to be an idol for so long.

Research has shown that athletes, specifically professional athletes, have a problem with domestic and sexual violence, yet are convicted at a much lower rate than the overall population. It’s impossible not to tie the allegations against Bryant to this larger issue, considering his prominence within the sports world. Love him or not, Bryant is symptomatic of a larger problem of sexual violence in sports that must be addressed. 

At the time of the 2003 rape case, sexual violence against women was not at the forefront of the public consciousness. That fact does not mean we should simply pretend it didn’t happen.

Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He also had to write a court-ordered apology to a woman for raping her. His legacy will still live forever within the world of sports, but it would be a mistake to glorify him as opposed to remembering him as he was: a deeply flawed individual who represented a larger pattern of sexual violence among athletes.