The 90th Academy Awards weren’t going to follow the same old script. Due to the rash of high-profile revelations of misconduct across the film industry, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to confront these ills, and they seized the opportunity to acknowledge the women who have come forward to tell personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
It’s achingly appropriate, then, that on a night dedicated to that simple tenet—listen to women—one of the biggest winners was someone whose sexual assault case still serves as an object lesson as to why women are so hesitant to come forward and report misconduct and abuse.
This year’s Oscar for Best Animated Short went to Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball.” Bryant narrates the film, and the words come from a poem he wrote in 2015 for The Players Tribune announcing his retirement from the NBA. Disney veteran Glen Keane provided the art for the short, and his sketches of a 6-year-old Bryant shooting socks into a hamper morph and merge with dynamic scenes of the elder Kobe dominating the pros. The score is from five-time Oscar winner John Williams (it’s unmistakable), and, given the talent involved, it’s no surprise that these sweet five minutes of fluid storytelling were the odds-on favorite to win going into Sunday night.
However, given the evening’s tenor, Bryant’s win was a surprising throwback to when Oscar night was a time to brush industry ills under the red carpet in the name of celebration.
On July 1, 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman at a Colorado resort. The woman, a hotel employee, gave Bryant a tour around the property, and he asked her to return to his room later in the evening. She told police that they kissed, but when she tried to leave, she said that “he started to choke me.”
In her interview with investigators, she described a violent and traumatic assault. (The Daily Beast published a comprehensive summary upon Bryant’s NBA retirement in 2016.) “I was just kinda scared and I said no a few times,” she told police. “[E]very time I said no he tightened his hold around me.”
The woman went to the police the day after the alleged assault and was treated at a nearby hospital. A nurse later testified during a preliminary hearing that the accuser suffered vaginal injuries that were “not consistent with consensual sex.”
When police confronted Bryant the evening after the incident, he initially denied that he had any sexual contact with the woman. It wasn’t until after officers told him they had retrieved bodily fluids from the accuser that Bryant conceded they had sex, but he insisted that it was “totally consensual.”
Bryant was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment. During preliminary hearings, Bryant’s defense team focused their efforts on discrediting the accuser. They painted her as promiscuous and unstable, and the depiction was widely picked up in the media. Outlets were quick to publish sordid revelations about the woman’s past, and the defense team leaned on this information to buttress their claim that her injuries may have been the result of having sex with “multiple partners” over a short period of time.
While her sexual past was a focus, the AP also published a story on the woman’s medical history, specifically an incident four months before the alleged assault where she was hospitalized at college for “a mental health issue.”
The case was plagued by leaks. The woman’s identity got out after it was accidentally posted on the Eagle County website, and her full name was widely repeated across talk radio. Websites about the accuser appeared on the internet, and many listed her address and phone number. (Some posted pictures and information of the wrong woman, a friend of the accuser. Her family had to hire a lawyer to force the sites to remove the content.) Bryant’s accuser was subjected to multiple death threats.
Just weeks before the case was set to go to trial, the woman wrote an apology letter to the state investigator handling the case. In it, she apologized for misstatements she made during her initial interview with the police the day after the alleged assault. She had told the detective she was late to work on the afternoon she met Bryant due to car trouble when she had “simply overslept.” She also apologized for saying that Bryant had forced her to wash her face afterwards in the room. “Instead,” she wrote, “I stopped at the mirror by the elevator on that floor to clean my face up.”
“I said what I said,” she wrote, “because I felt that Detective Winters did not believe what happened to me. In reporting this crime one of my fears was that I would not be believed.”
A week before the trial was set to commence with opening statements, Bryant’s accuser told authorities that she refused to testify in court. She also agreed to dismiss her charges if Bryant issued an apology, which he did.
“Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure,” Bryant’s apology reads. “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.”
The two settled a civil suit out of court soon after the criminal case was dropped. (Bryant’s apology could not be used against him in the civil case.)
Afterwards, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault criticised Bryant’s legal team for their strategy. “The defense team in the criminal case managed to get reams of paper filled with rumor and innuendo about this young woman’s prior sexual history out into the public,” she said. The Coalition also found that there was a nearly 10 percent drop in rape reporting the year following Bryant’s case.
In 2005, Nike began using Bryant’s image in advertisements again, and he enjoyed more than a decade of continued success in the NBA after the incident in that hotel room in Colorado. Post-retirement, he has ambitiously branched out, and his Oscars win represents a new frontier of achievement.
When the cast of Star Wars presented Bryant with his award, he was greeted with wild cheers from the audience. It was an old-fashioned celebration. For at least one part of Oscar night, no one seemed overly concerned about digging into the past.