Three brief thoughts on our general refusal to include discussion of Kobe Bryant’s history of sexual violence in the wake of his death (It’s disrespectful to mention it now that he’s dead, we’re told, but we were also told that it was disrespectful of his wife and children and efforts to be a “good person” to mention it when he was living. So the message is that it’s never okay to talk about it. Don’t be a fuss. Don’t embarrass people. Don’t bring up the past. Forgive people. Don’t define people by their mistakes. All of this has the effect, if not the intention (but, yes, the intention), of silencing victims.):
First: I don’t care much about Kobe Bryant. Why? Because, in 2003, I decided to no longer give attention to someone who was credibly accused of rape.
And don’t think it’s just basketball. I don’t watch Woody Allen films either. Or Roman Polanski ones. I don’t listen to David Bowie. Yes, I’m missing out on some things, but I don’t miss having to worry about whether my pop culture habits are hurting victims of sexual assault while enriching their assailants. Some of this took a lot of work on my part. (I had to do a lot of revision of my classroom lectures, for example, as I’d previously used a number of clips of Louis CK and other comedians who have engaged in sexual harassment or violence.)
It’s entirely possible to not participate in the celebration of extremely talented people only on the basis of the fact that they engaged in sexual violence. Like, Bryant could have been the best basketball player in the world, and we could have decided to ignore that because we didn’t want to lift up a person who sexually assaulted another. A person has no universal right to be famous, even if they are unusually talented. It’s actually justfiable to lose your entire career because you assaulted someone.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t forgiveness. But Kobe Bryant’s crimes aren’t mine to forgive. My only decision is whether I will venerate an athlete or artist who commits such crimes. I’ve chosen not to. If you are finding the complexity of your grief about Bryant to be overwhelming this week, consider the alternative: giving up faster on men who abuse women.
Second: My work brings me into frequent contact with people society recognizes as engaging in despicable behavior. Yet these people are often incredibly good–when they are not bad. Like, 95% of the time, a cruel homophobe will be a wonderful human being–better than many people who are not cruel homophobes. And so we say with surprise, “How can a person who is so bad also be so good?”
But the mere capability of making both good and bad choices does not make us complex. The fact that we sometimes (or often) make bad ones also does not render us “complex.” It’s far more interesting to be capable of making both good and bad choices and then to make good ones anyway than it is to allow our ability for wrongdoing lead us to do wrong. And so, I find words like complex to describe Bryant to be dishonest. It’s not complex to want to do a bad thing and then to do it. It’s quite simple.
The grief we feel may be complicated, but that is different from Bryant’s story.
Third: The sexual assault that will always be part of Bryant’s legacy is just one story that illustrates what the research tells us: men who rape are often “good” men. Rapists are not only (or merely or even overwhelmingly) poor men with few sexual choices and little self-control. Rapists are often well-regarded, powerful men with access to an array of consenting sexual partners; they exercise self-control every single day as they wake up to practice their sport or hone their craft, advance their careers, pay their bills, maintain their health, defeat their enemies, and live as heroes in their own families, communities, and churches. They understand what consent is because they ask for it in other settings, including other sexual interactions; they assault the people they think they can safely assault without repercussion–like a 19-year-old hotel worker. Their bad behavior isn’t rooted in a lack of education or a mental illness. It’s rooted in their belief that they will not be held accountable for their behavior.
So we should not be surprised that some people who do bad things are often also (and actually mostly) “good.”
What we should instead remember is that “good people” have within them the ability to make decisions that hurt others (“bad” decisions to engage in “bad” behavior). This does not mean that we would all be rapists if given the chance. Neither rape nor any other form of cruelty is “natural” to people, including men. But it does mean that all of us have an obligation to create systems of accountability that make it much harder for people who would do such things not to.
Kobe Bryant contributed to a culture in which it became harder for us to hold men accountable. In 2003, his legal team smeared the reputation of the woman he later admitted to assaulting (because not having a shared understanding of whether was consensual is, definitionally, assault). She was so terrorized that she was unable to engage in the court trial that she, as a victim, was entitled to. As we pick apart apologies and nonapologies by famous men since then, Bryant’s may seem sensitive: after all, he recognizes that they seem to have had different opinions about what happened that night. But sexual assault isn’t a matter a dress that might be blue or might be yellow, depending on the cones in your eyes. The person who says “no” is always the person who defines the situation.
By crafting a new persona after destroying a woman he’d already victimized, Bryant made it harder for women to seek justice. Perpetrators saw that Bryants’ scorched-earth approach to dealing with her before the trial worked. And they saw that an apology and a family-guy image (even if it was true, because people who are rapists are also fathers and husbands) could make the public forget–even make him the victim of those of us who won’t.
This all sounds ungracious, I know. If Bryants’ self-improvement since 2003 adds to the problem for victims, what would I rather he have done–not become a decent husband and father and a support of women in sports? Is there no way for redemption?
I don’t know. That’s for his victim to decide. What I know is that she wasn’t given the chance, and he didn’t, as far as we know from the record he left us, provide it to her.