Kobe Bryant died on Sunday in a helicopter accident that killed all nine people on board, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. The former Los Angeles Lakers star, 41, was on his way to coach Gianna in a basketball game when the helicopter crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California.
As fans and sports reporters recounted Bryant’s brilliant on-court legacy, others remembered the rape accusation a 19-year-old hotel clerk made against him in 2003. “What has happened is tragic. I am heartbroken for Kobe’s family. He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously,” actor Evan Rachel Wood tweeted. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a thorough Daily Beast piece from 2016 that detailed the woman’s allegation, the vaginal lacerations documented by law enforcement, and Bryant’s corroboration of many elements of the accuser’s story. The case against Bryant was dropped in 2004 when the alleged victim declined to continue cooperating with prosecutors. A year later, Bryant and his accuser settled her civil suit out of court.
After posting a link to that Daily Beast story, Sonmez was inundated with vitriol—she later tweeted that “10,000 people (literally)” had sent her “abuse and death threats.” Sonmez also posted a screenshot of her email inbox, which included the full display name of a person who’d said, “Piece of fucking shit. Go fuck yourself. Cunt.” Upon seeing these messages, the Washington Post punished Sonmez. The newspaper placed her on administrative leave while it “reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy,” managing editor Tracy Grant told the Daily Mail. “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” Sonmez shared with the New York Times an email from Post executive editor Marty Baron that included a screenshot of her initial tweet of the Daily Beast article and said, “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” (I reached out Sonmez for comment but haven’t heard back.)
Bryant’s accuser refused to testify after her identity and sealed transcripts that discussed her sexual history were leaked to the press. Bryant, for his part, first said there was no sexual encounter, then later admitted to what he said was “consensual” sex and an act of “adultery.” He then issued a public apology to his alleged victim after his defense team had spent a year calling into question her motives, sexual morality, and mental health. “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,” he said through his attorney. “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.”
In the day since Bryant’s death, news outlets have struggled to fit the rape case into their obituaries and remembrances. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, Sports Illustrated, the Undefeated, and several other sports outlets ran pieces that didn’t mention it at all. (Many of these outlets did mention the rape allegation somewhere in their coverage.) Other publications tried to place the rape allegation in the context of Bryant’s NBA career. The New York Times included one paragraph about the case in its obit, noting that “Bryant’s reputation was more complicated than all his accolades would suggest.” In the Los Angeles Times obituary, a description of the rape allegation is prefaced by a claim that Bryant’s “aggression and agility on the court came with a darker side as well.” The Washington Post’s report says that “Bryant’s NBA career was not without controversy,” followed by two sentences about the allegation. (Slate’s initial news post on Bryant’s death included four sentences on the sexual assault allegation in the fifth paragraph.)
Other pieces talked around the case. In another Associated Press report, the three sentences about the allegations don’t mention rape or sexual assault; it says that Bryant was charged with “attacking” the woman. A second Fox News piece that doesn’t note the rape accusation links to two pieces that do: In its explanation of how Bryant nicknamed himself Black Mamba, the piece alludes to “a dark chapter in his life when he felt the world was against him.” The fact that Bryant invented his famous alter ego—whose name is being repeatedly invoked in most tributes—in direct response to the rape allegation makes the piece’s studied avoidance seem even stranger. (Ditto all the other pieces that refer to Bryant as Black Mamba without mentioning the alleged assault.) On the flip side, CNN ran a whole article on the nickname, including an explanation of its roots in the sexual assault accusation. Even so, when the piece explains that Bryant bestowed the Mamba name on his youth basketball league and sports academy, the tone feels off. It turns out there’s no easy way to explain that an accused rapist named a collection of childrens’ sports teams after an identity he created to help him recover from being accused of rape.
Some Bryant tributes have run with that Black Mamba narrative, using the alleged sexual assault and Bryant’s response to it to paint a picture of a resilient, ambitious athlete. One Washington Post piece lumped the rape allegation in with Bryant’s beef with Shaquille O’Neal to show that his “reputation as a teammate and sports role model were matters of controversy.” After prosecutors dropped the charges against him, the article continues, “Mr. Bryant’s image as a clean-cut cultural darling was tarnished. He would spend the next decade rebuilding his image not just as a detail-oriented perfectionist but as a person obsessed with greatness and achievement overall.” In the New York Daily News, Mike Lupica wrote that the “worst moment of [Bryant’s] public life did not define the rest of his life. But it also cannot be ignored. … That hotel room in Colorado would always be a part of his history, his story, and all of his luminous accomplishments. He was as fiercely determined to write a worthy second act to his public life. And did.”
There is a clear impulse, among many of these writers, to sweep the rape case into a coherent narrative of Bryant’s life. Most of these attempts are clumsy, because people’s private and public selves are rarely cohesive. It’s easy enough to understand that beloved high achievers sometimes do terrible things. It’s a lot harder to give adequate space and consideration to that sentiment in an article that’s written after a tragic accident that claimed nine lives.
In a piece written for Esquire, Charles P. Pierce left room for multiple interpretations of Bryant’s character, beginning with a quote from Jim Carroll: “In basketball, you can correct your mistakes immediately and beautifully, and in midair.” How any one person judges Bryant’s life, Pierce writes, will depend on “how deeply you believe that he corrected his grievous fault through the life he lived afterwards, and how deeply you believe that he corrected that fault, immediately and beautifully, and in midair.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it recognizes that no one but Bryant—and, maybe, his closest family and friends—can really know whether or how Bryant changed after 2003. But it also suggests that Bryant could have made amends for his legal team’s brutal treatment of his accuser—and, allegedly, a rape—by being a good father and a youth sports advocate. Those deeds are commendable, but they have nothing to do with the young woman whose life was upended between 2003 and 2005.
The words many writers are reaching for as they strain to sum up Bryant’s legacy are complicated, complex, and flawed. In a fond, wistful remembrance on ESPN, Jackie MacMullan calls Bryant “curious and demanding and savvy and competitive and relentless and infinitely complicated,” recalling that he came out of the “bruising sexual assault case both angry and defiant”—a poor choice of words, given that investigators documented bruising on the neck of Bryant’s accuser from, she said, nonconsensual choking during the alleged rape. (Bryant seemingly admitted to choking her when he spoke to police.) At Sports Illustrated, Chris Ballard’s tribute includes a brief mention of the assault, then moves on to personal recollections. “[Bryant’s] legacy will be determined and debated in the weeks, months and years to come. For now, I think back on the memories,” he writes. “Kobe Bryant was a complex, flawed human being.” But every human being is complicated, complex, and flawed. Not every human being has been accused of rape. To describe Bryant that way seems like a perfunctory admission, a way to reduce the crime he was accused of to a run-of-the-mill human foible.
In the Los Angeles Times, Erika D. Smith took the opposite approach, framing Bryant’s triumph over his accuser as yet another reason to valorize him. Bryant was neither an “angel” nor a “saint,” Smith writes, adding that he “almost ruined his career and his marriage with an act of adultery that led to an allegation of sexual assault.” She argues that too many black men have been incarcerated and disenfranchised for “one mistake.” She applauds the way Bryant and Nipsey Hussle “worked to overcome their mistakes, and … used what they learned to motivate others.” To gloss over Bryant’s “adultery” and Hussle’s gang activity would be “an injustice to who they were. To their grind.”
Smith’s point about how systemic racism has a profound effect on how sexual assault cases get adjudicated is well worth making. At the same time, the woman who said Bryant raped her wasn’t an obstacle he had to overcome to achieve his true greatness. This is the exact story Bryant was trying to tell when he christened himself the Black Mamba. This week, that story is inadequate, and incomplete.
This post has been updated for clarity.