By: Christina Lee
Kobe Bryant—dead in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Later we would find out that the legendary basketball star’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna had also passed away in the crash alongside seven others.
Headlines cropped up relaying the news of the tragic death of the 41-year-old sports legend. Known for his 20-season professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers and as the recipient of numerous awards, Bryant’s sudden death resounded with basketball fans across the nation and all over the world.
However, the athlete’s death was not the only keyword blaring across the headlines. Reporters, victims of sexual assault, and critics of the late athlete were now posthumously bringing up Bryant’s rape allegation from July 2003.
That year, a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado hotel claimed that Bryant, who was 24 at the time, had raped her in a hotel room, bruises on her neck a testimony to Bryant’s strangling of the woman. She then filed a police report but later refused to testify. The case was dropped, but the damage was done. Bryant admitted to having sexual intercourse with the woman yet insisted that the ordeal was consensual.
Bryant then released a statement: “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. After months of reviewing 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.”
Bryant was arrested on July 4, 2003.
Now in an era of internet cancel culture and easily viral boycott sentiments, outspoken victims of sexual assault as well as reporters from major news publications were quick to point out this case from 17 years ago, criticizing the flawed history of this highly praised basketball legend. Their efforts did not go undetected.
Upon tweeting about Bryant’s rape accusation just hours after his death, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was put on administrative leave, the news publication deeming her tweets to display “poor judgment” surrounding the issue. Sonmez had to stay in a hotel overnight as a result of a leak of her home address and unrelenting rape and death threats.
This concept of constant threatening, attempting to maliciously silence the outspoken seems to be a recurring pattern for those invested or involved in this issue. Bryant’s accuser was also as dangerously threatened—a man offered to kill her for $3 million, another left death threats on the woman’s answering machine, a Long Beach man sending her up to 70.
The number of awards, the countless seasons one has played, the amount of times one has claimed that the sex was consensual do not overwrite the consequences that another individual must face for the rest of their life, all because one man could not control himself at a Colorado hotel. For Bryant, that day in July may have been a moment he wanted to erase from history after the exposure of his act to the public, but to the victim, that day most likely remains as one of the most traumatic experiences of her lifetime—how can someone of such high social standing understand what it is like to continue living under the label of a traumatizing sexual-assault case in a modern-day, witch-hunting society?
Perhaps we haven’t given enough thought to the repercussions of the victim speaking out—death threats, harassment, an invasion of privacy. And for Bryant? A $136-million contract and endorsements for some of the largest corporations in America. The difference is too clear to deny that this rape allegation can only remain as a trivial speck in an athlete’s career.
For fans, Bryant’s character as it is re-exposed and re-interpreted by the public can create conflicting sentiments—one man’s sexual misconduct from years ago could tarnish and complicate his whole career, creating tumult even after his death, even 17 years after its occurrence. But maybe that’s the price to pay for fame. Maybe that’s the price to pay for the social elites who abuse their power.
It’s impossible to doubt that fans, critics, reporters will continue to bring up his past; we will continue to have discussion surrounding the privileges of powerful figures in popular culture, and we will continue to reiterate that one’s status is not an excuse for poor behavior. We will continue to discuss these issues to establish that we cannot habituate the silencing of victims, nor can we encourage the erasure of the ugly truth to serve the already-powerful.
The victim was threatened for accusing the successful basketball star during his career; Sonmez was put on leave for bringing up the topic after his death. If now is not the right time to talk about rape, when is it?