Since his death in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Kobe Bryant has been extolled as an otherworldly basketball player, an attentive father, and a champion of female athletes.
Interspersed among the accolades, however, have been accounts from 2003 of Bryant’s being charged with sexually assaulting a teenager. The case was dropped before trial when the accuser declined to testify. She later filed a lawsuit against Bryant, which ended in an undisclosed settlement.
Media reports of that alleged rape, sporadic as they’ve been, have triggered anxiety among women who have been assaulted, experts on rape said Wednesday. They likened the dynamic to the anguish generated by the U.S. Senate hearing that examined sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh in September 2018 before he joined the U.S. Supreme Court.
Beyond victims’ reactions, discordant posts on social media have reflected the rift between two entrenched camps: those who condemn Bryant for an alleged crime that was buttressed by what some call compelling evidence, and those who say it’s unseemly to speak ill of a fallen hero, especially one who died with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in so swift and stunning a manner.
“There are many layers about how people are experiencing the passing of Kobe Bryant,” said Monique Howard, executive director of WOAR: The Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, the only rape crisis center in the city.
“But for women who’ve experienced sexual assault, it absolutely evokes past trauma. There’s a subset of people here talking about Kobe Bryant allegedly raping a woman. It impacts rape survivors and people who work with them."
Howard said more women have been reaching out to friends, writing in journals, and calling counselors: “We’re aware people are triggered — their symptoms are increased anxiety, less or more sleeping, less or more appetite.”
As victims of post-traumatic stress express their heartache in relatively private ways, others have taken to Twitter to weigh in loudly on Bryant’s alleged crime.
“It’s always the black and brown celebrities who get disproportionately criticized...,” a Philadelphia resident wrote. “People will mention Kobe in the same breath as celebrities with serial rape/pedophilia charges on [their] records.”
Another noted that now is “a time to grieve,” not to “mention all the ‘bad’ the person did. Shut up.”
A third Philadelphian asserted, “The hard things need to be said. There’s space ... to discuss his ... place in the culture ... and also that he was accused of rape.”
That view reflects the thinking of Joan Cook, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and an expert on traumatic stress.
“In my mind, the alleged sexual violation should be integrated into our collective memory of Kobe Bryant,” she said. “But it should not invalidate all the good he has done.”
This week, talk about Bryant has been so fraught that the Washington Post suspended, then reinstated, reporter Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted a story referencing the rape allegations a few hours after his death.
“We have to create spaces for people to have these conversations,” Howard said. “This is complex.”
The idea that a man can carry contradictions and inconsistencies within himself can be difficult for some to comprehend.
“It’s very human to want to put things into categories,” said psychologist Vaile Wright, a trauma expert and the director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association in Washington.
“We need to say someone is bad or good, weak or strong, because it takes less of a mental load to put a person in a single box.”
The #MeToo movement, centered on sexual assault and harassment, is teaching Americans that there is nuance in how we regard men who may have transgressed, said Evette Dionne, editor-in-chief of Bitch Media, a feminist online and print outlet in Denver. Dionne is author of the forthcoming book Lifting as We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box.
“The movement helps us look at people in all their dimensions. A person can be a philanthropist and also prey on another.”
Dionne said that “we allow the sports media to gloss over the bad aspects of a person’s life.” She recently wrote about Bryant in Time.
Dionne specifically referenced the night of June 20, 2003, when a 19-year-old worker at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo., accused Bryant, then 24, of groping, choking, and raping her, then saying, “You’re not going to tell anybody.”
According to records obtained by the Daily Beast, the woman was examined by sexual assault nurse examiners at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, Colo., who concluded she had suffered “too many lacerations to count,” part of a trauma “not consistent with consensual sex.”
The woman’s blood was found on Bryant’s shirt, and she suffered a bruise on her jaw, records showed.
The sex was “totally consensual,” Bryant told authorities after saying the woman was “not that attractive.”
He added, “I’m innocent. I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery.”
The case was moving toward trial, said Dionne, but Bryant’s “legal team smeared the woman’s reputation, intimidating her into not testifying.”
In an unusual apology, Bryant acknowledged, “After months of viewing 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.”
Dionne said, “We as a culture bury these allegations and use his death as an excuse to not have a conversation.”
She added that it’s important to give Bryant his athletic due and to say that he evolved into a champion of gender sports equity. However, she said, it’s equally vital to openly discuss his alleged crime to teach other young men how to behave.
“He deserves to be immortalized,” Dionne said, “but it’s also OK to say he did something that harmed someone else.”