In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, one recurring word has dominated the headlines describing his legacy: complicated.
The New York Times, for one, published a piece that detailed Bryant’s “brilliant and complicated legacy.” ESPN, meanwhile, remembered Kobe Bryant as “relentless, curious and infinitely complicated.” And Business Insider, while referencing Bryant’s “illustrious” NBA career, also acknowledged that his “off-court legacy is complicated.”
The headlines are, in no uncertain terms, alluding to the undercurrent coursing through Bryant’s powerhouse and otherwise unshakable legacy – his 2003 rape allegations.
Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003 after raping a 19-year-old hotel employee. He ultimately issued a public apology but maintained that the encounter was consensual. He did admit, however,
“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.”
Though the case was ultimately settled out of court in a civil suit, several troubling details emerged, including reports that the victim was choked and bloodied and had documented injuries that were clearly not consistent with consensual sex.
Then, during her initial legal proceedings against Bryant, the victim was subjected to a smear campaign by his legal team, where her mental health, sexual history, and motives for reporting her own rape were called into question. And now, that very same victim has to watch as the man who raped her is admired and revered across the globe, memorialized as the greatest athlete of his time.
But even knowing Bryant’s controversial past behavior, and even as someone who believes victims and advocates for victims, it was difficult to feel anything but heartbroken as details of Bryant’s untimely death emerged.
After all, Bryant was an NBA icon, a philanthropist, and a family man. He was a larger-than-life superstar who inspired a generation of athletes and was a hero to millions across the globe. And it’s really, really difficult to reconcile your heroes with the terrible things they have done.
As humans, we always want to make everything black and white, to simplify issues into easily quantifiable extremes that we can better understand. We want to valorize and villainize. But we forget that there can be multiple truths at once.
Kobe Bryant engaged in absolutely reprehensible behavior. That is the truth. And we should believe his victim, who is undoubtedly being re-triggered by the unrelenting headlines of her alleged rapist. She was assaulted by one of the most powerful and untouchable men in the world and her life has been forever changed because of it.
But there’s another truth, too.
A father who was inarguably devoted to his four little girls will not get to watch them grow up. A 13-year-old girl with dreams of the WNBA will never get the shot she deserved. Seven other victims, including two more children, will never come home. In the matter of a moment, families were splintered and lives were shattered. This is a human tragedy regardless of the moral character of every person on board. Lives were lost, too young and too many.
Bryant’s legacy doesn’t suffer from being told in its fully-formed reality. It is absolutely possible to mourn the basketball star and the positive legacy he left behind without condoning or excusing his sexual assault in any capacity. You can grieve your hero while still remembering that he isn’t quite the hero that the world has made him out to be.