How would Kobe Bryant have fared if his legacy’s darkest chapter happened in the ‘Me Too’ era?

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Kobe Bryant leaves the Eagle County (Colorado) Justice Center in 2004 at the conclusion of a pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case. (AP)
Kobe Bryant leaves the Eagle County (Colorado) Justice Center in 2004 at the conclusion of a pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case. (AP)

Just about every day, we are greeted by news of another woman bravely saying, “Me too.” Victims and survivors of sexual harassment and assault have found a voice, and 2017 will be remembered for their testimony. It will also be remembered for celebrities who have lost their careers because of alleged misconduct.

In the midst of all of this, there is a sports celebration fit for a king Monday. Kobe Bryant, one of the best basketball players who ever lived, will have both of his Lakers numbers retired at Staples Center in Los Angeles. It’s a time to look back on his incredible legacy. It’s also a time to ask if his 2003 rape case would have had more of an effect on that legacy if the “Me Too” era had started a generation sooner.

In 2003, Bryant was visiting Colorado in advance of a scheduled surgery. At a resort in Edwards, located between Vail and Eagle, he invited a 19-year-old hotel employee to his room and asked for a tour of the property. They had sex, and Bryant has always insisted it was consensual. The woman insisted Bryant became violent and raped her. Charges against the Lakers star were dismissed more than a year after the encounter because the woman was unwilling to testify. A civil case was eventually settled. Bryant maintained his stellar career.

Over the long term, there has been little damage to Bryant’s reputation. He has made millions in endorsements since his case was dismissed. The Lakers gave him a $136 million contract one year after he was accused. Bryant was feted at every NBA stop on his retirement tour two years ago, and his final game was basically 48 minutes of clear-out basketball. During that time there was very little mention of what happened in 2003.

“Sports seems to be this bizarro world,” says Brenda Tracy, a member of the NCAA’s committee to combat sexual violence . “None of the rules that apply to other aspects of our culture seem to apply with sports. I don’t know if that’s because sports is the religion of our country.”

In the past several weeks alone, famous people from other walks of life have lost their careers from accusations without legal outcomes: journalists Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, Hollywood titans Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and politicians Al Franken and John Conyers. It’s easy to say the Bryant case was a long time ago, but the heat is still on President Donald Trump and former president Bill Clinton even though many of the assault accusations against them are much older.

In our era, there is no statute of limitations when it comes to criticism of accused icons. Except, it seems, when it comes to athletes. Tracy quips that if Lauer were a football player, he’d be suspended six shows and return to the air.

“Women are being believed now more than then,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO of Champion Women, an advocacy group for girls and women in sports, and a civil rights lawyer. “But we still have a problem with male athletes. You’ll see people take the fall in media, or politics, but athletes have a source of power that other men don’t, which is fans. They will slut-shame and discredit a victim’s story pretty quickly.”

Kobe Bryant steps on the court for a 2004 regular-season game at Staples Center after arriving from Colorado, where he had a closed hearing earlier in the day regarding his sexual assault case. (AP)
Kobe Bryant steps on the court for a 2004 regular-season game at Staples Center after arriving from Colorado, where he had a closed hearing earlier in the day regarding his sexual assault case. (AP)

Not all athletes get that special treatment. Tiger Woods’ consensual affairs lingered in the public consciousness for years, while Bryant’s have been largely forgotten. In the past few days, football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk was suspended from NFL Network after a lawsuit claiming harassment. Active athletes with bright futures do better in the court of public opinion than older or retired players.

Consider Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who is far less beloved than Bryant, far less accomplished, and still the face of his franchise despite an unproven rape accusation at Florida State, a civil settlement, and a standing accusation of groping an Uber driver in 2016. Or Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star, who was accused of rape in 2015 before his accuser decided not to go forward with the investigation. This was several years after Kane was accused of physically assaulting a cab driver in Buffalo. Kane’s jersey is still commonly worn in Chicago.

“In the bell-shaped curve of athletic abilities, the tail is very long,” Hogshead-Makar says. “The No. 1 athlete is much, much better than No. 10. The further out there you are on that extreme, the less replaceable you are.”

Bryant was the supernova in the City of Angels. He was the heir to Magic Johnson. He was irreplaceable.

The constant media coverage of sporting events often helps, even unwittingly. A triumphant season is levered as a way of “overcoming” allegations. Some deemed it impressive that Bryant appeared in court on some days and then led the Lakers to a win that night. It’s an unearned reprieve – Why should success in sport have anything to do with an alleged assault? – but part of the hero narrative is “getting past” dark times, blocking out “distractions” or “maturing.” That has not changed. If video or audio of the Colorado encounter existed, that might be a different story. But then as now, in the case of super celebrities like Bryant, “he said, she said” often reverts to “he said,” shrug.

“Society just wants to get the situation over with and move on,” Tracy says. “If I can blame it on her – she was at the party, she drank, she shouldn’t have been there – I can go back to cheering my favorite player. But if I’ve decided he’s done this, then what? What about my team, my fandom, my jersey?”

What may be different in 2018 and beyond is the public treatment of those who come forward. Whether you think Bryant’s accuser was telling the truth or not, her experience was humiliating and it was followed by waves of further humiliation. Her identity was disseminated on message boards and personal information was circulated online. Her intentions were publicly assailed, her mental health was questioned, her character was dissected online – and this was before Facebook. She received threats, including one from an Iowan who promised to assault her with a coat hanger and kill her. (In one news story about the Iowa man, who faced federal charges, he was described by a friend as a smart person “who really makes you feel comfortable.”) So in this instance, the man who threatened the accuser with a coat hanger was treated more kindly by the media than the accuser herself.

“Even calling the victim ‘the accuser’ makes it seem like she’s a perpetrator,” Tracy says. “’The accuser’ makes it sound like they’ve done something wrong.”

It’s naïve to think today’s survivors are immune from spite. The women who spoke out against Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore were cast in some circles as liars. But now there is more of an immediate support for women declaring “me too.” There is a better understanding that rape allegations are almost never made up. And hackneyed blame for women – she was drunk, she was wearing skimpy clothing, she’s had a lot of partners – is condemned more than it was before. If there is another accuser of a major athlete in the months or years to come, she may feel more comfortable speaking out than her predecessors. That’s more important than how we view Bryant.

“The public response to a victim can affect whether or not others call,” says Amy Pohl, communications director for the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “If an accuser is treated poorly by the public, that might make people not want to call. But when you see the ‘Me Too’ campaign, people are more likely to speak up.”

Still, the celebrity athlete has an almost daily opportunity to rewrite the narrative in his favor. Every dunk or clutch shot helped Bryant move on. Every commercial or magazine profile of his charisma allowed distance from the ignominy of that night in Colorado. Perhaps by now the woman who made a report against Bryant is a company executive, a valued member of her church and community, a wife, a mom. Perhaps it’s all of the above. We don’t know her story or her struggle. To the general public she is still “Kobe Bryant’s 19-year-old accuser” – if she’s thought of at all. Bryant has made his millions of fans forget about Colorado. The woman who came forward back then doesn’t have the luxury of forgetting, and never will.

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