It’s Not “Too Soon” to Talk About the Kobe Bryant Rape Case

Black-and-white close-up of Kobe Bryant's face as he looks to the side in a Dec. 2, 2015, game against the Washington Wizards.
“The rape case is a big part of his legacy. He never really properly grappled with it, and the media let him get away with that.” Rob Carr/Getty Images

In 2016, Lindsay Gibbs wrote a story for ThinkProgress titled “The Legacy of the Kobe Bryant Rape Case.” In that piece, Gibbs describes the sexual assault case against Bryant, how it didn’t proceed when the alleged victim reportedly declined to cooperate with prosecutors, and what the ramifications of it look like more than a decade later. Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast spoke to Gibbs, author of the Power Plays newsletter on women in sports, about how the rape case was discussed in the early 2000s and how it’s been covered in the aftermath of Bryant’s death. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.

Stefan Fatsis: Lindsay, how do you think the inclusion of this chapter of Bryant’s life has been handled?

Lindsay Gibbs: It’s tough because the media and fans didn’t do a really good job reckoning with it when he was alive. So it makes sense that it would be even more tough to discuss when he’s passed away, especially so tragically. I’m seeing two extremes. First, people who were really affected by the rape case and really remember that, and so they are using that as a way to say that all the other grief about him is invalid. Second, there are people going into deep detail about his on-court legacy and off-court legacy while referring to the rape case as “that Colorado thing.” And really, neither of those are sufficient. I think it is a big part of his legacy. He never really properly grappled with it, and the media let him get away with that. At the same time, I don’t think it should be the only thing that is discussed. And I understand why a lot of people want to discuss other things about his legacy right now.

Josh Levin: On ESPN, which I had on all day yesterday and this morning, they were really sticking to sports. I don’t want to say there was no mention on SportsCenter, but if there was, it was extremely passing, and the coverage was entirely focused on the outpouring from his NBA peers, from other people in the world. ABC News also did a special report that only mentioned the sexual case very, very glancingly and was extremely hagiographic towards Kobe. It creates an environment where if you do try to reckon with it, it’s seen as not in keeping with the tone of the moment. It feels like you’re being impolitic if you bring it up.

Gibbs: Right, you’re being a social justice warrior. “Too soon” is the thing everyone says. It’s hard, though, because I would get attacked the same way when I brought it up when he was alive. So there was never a “right time” to talk about it. Because I wrote this piece back in 2016, people have been reaching out to me over the past 24 hours. It’s the very angry and the very ugly, but it’s also a lot of survivors who are having very complicated feelings, and are really upset that they’re not hearing it talked about and want to know if there’s something wrong with them because it’s all they can think about.

Part of the legacy of that rape case was the extreme victim-shaming that Kobe’s lawyer did, and that the media ran with. The law didn’t protect her, the legal system didn’t protect her, and the media certainly didn’t protect her. And so a lot of people do remember that, and remember him never, never reckoning with that. Him still enforcing the nondisclosure agreement—a couple of years ago he did an interview with the Washington Post, a big feature, and they reached out to her and she couldn’t talk because of the NDA.

And that’s important. That impacted a lot of people too, as did, of course, his work in women’s basketball, and his relationship with his daughter. It all exists. And it’s uncomfortable that it all exists, but it does. And ignoring it doesn’t help. I think ignoring it just makes survivors from all communities feel more shame, feel more confused, and feel like they’re not a part of our culture, our society.

Joel Anderson: Yeah. A big part of the glue that holds rape culture together is the idea that what happens to women matters less than the prerogative of men, right?

It’s like we’re always discussing intentions, or whether it’s “a youthful indiscretion.” And so survivors learned that what happened to them doesn’t matter. And people get that from the police, colleges, institutions, and now sports. And so here with Kobe, people are sort of dancing around the idea that, yo, this dude was credibly accused of rape. And they’re like, “No, this is not a good time to talk about it.” But back then it was like, “Oh, this is a guy with a future and he’s expressed remorse and he says he didn’t do it.”

The way that I think of it is that if your support and your admiration for Kobe is strong enough, like if you really loved Kobe, you idolized him, that should be real enough to sustain an analysis or review of his life as he lived it. Nobody is telling you how to mourn or that you can’t feel sorry for the fact that he died or that it was a tragedy, because it is. But that should not therefore dictate the way others choose to remember him or what we want to say about his death. And if you have a problem with it, you should get the hell off of social media. You should turn off the TV and mourn on your own time. But I don’t think that anybody should get mad at people for wanting to talk about “Hey, did he make proper amends? How did this affect the victim?” I mean, the victim today is watching all of this.

Gibbs: She’s watching all of it. Yeah.

Anderson: She’s watching all of this, and people are saying, “We don’t want to talk about that now,” as if what happened to her, or what she says happened to her, didn’t matter.

Gibbs: And victims everywhere are watching. Survivors in your life right now are listening to this and reading this and hearing all the dismissals. And it’s tough because I hear a lot of people from the black community say, “Don’t tell us how to feel.” You hear people in the women’s basketball community who he meant so much to say, “Don’t tell us how to feel.”

But the fact is there are survivors in all of these communities. Survivors aren’t in a community all to themselves. They’re part of all these other communities.

Fatsis: On the specific matter of the case itself, it’s instructive to go back and read what happened, because the charges were horrifying. The police interviews with the victim and with Bryant were incredibly disturbing. The victim declined to testify, and prosecutors wound up dropping the case, and then there was a civil lawsuit and a settlement with Bryant.

And Bryant issued an apology, which, read through the lens of today, is astounding. Bryant acknowledged that he may have sexually assaulted her. He acknowledges that she said it was not consensual.

Levin: He said, in part, “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.” I also want to note the part from the police interviews that is the most chilling. The alleged victim said that Kobe said to her, “You’re not gonna tell anybody, right?” during that alleged assault. She says, “I said no, and he didn’t hear me or asked me to say it louder. Wanted me to turn around and look at him while I said it.” She said that Bryant asked her the question three or four times.

Gibbs: I went back and revisited this in 2016, when he retired. I didn’t remember that much about it. I had been in high school during the time, I remembered the apology ring that he gave Vanessa. I remembered that press conference. I remembered a little bit about it, but I didn’t remember the details. Really going back and digging into how disturbing the allegations really were, how she was treated by the media, and that apology. I mean, there’s a lot to it.

Anderson: The other thing is … that I believe Kobe when he says that he doesn’t believe that he raped her. But that is a failure. First of all, that doesn’t clear you in terms of your legal or moral obligations to other people. It is a failure of consent, a failure to learn what consent is.

Gibbs: Yeah, I totally agree. Especially for these athletes that their whole life, they’ve been lifted up, praised by everyone. They haven’t heard “no” that often from anybody about anything because of their status and their talent. I completely agree with you, and I think I kept hoping as Kobe grew up and especially as he became such a fixture in the women’s sports community and he had these daughters, I kept hoping that maybe he would reckon with it in some way, somehow. And obviously we will never know if he would have, but it always felt like a missed opportunity for someone who did seem so insightful and to care so much about women that that conversation couldn’t be had. And now it won’t be.

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