Late last month, retired basketball star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash. His death was mourned by millions of fans, but it also raised questions about how to celebrate the life of someone accused of rape.
Bryant spent his 20-year playing career in Los Angeles, finishing third all-time in points scored. The 18-time All-Star’s list of statistical accomplishments, including his 81-point game – the second-highest scoring performance in NBA history – is too long to fully flesh out. His on-court play made him a surefire Hall of Famer.
Dozens of celebrities and leaders like Barack and Michelle Obama, LeBron James, Beyoncé and Reese Witherspoon mourned the late Lakers’ legend. The loss of someone as culturally relevant as Bryant will always be acutely felt and should be dealt with on those terms. Bryant’s impact went beyond his scoring prowess – he won an Oscar in 2018, helped bring attention to women’s basketball and inspired millions of people, including current NBA players like All-Star Russell Westbrook, with his “Mamba mentality.”
But athletes are people, too, and they should be remembered for both their personal lives and their work.
In the wake of Bryant’s death, I find myself grappling with how to remember his legacy as both a basketball star and alleged rapist. I am not the only one – Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez, herself a survivor of sexual assault, was suspended after she tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article recapping the allegations from 2003. The Post later reinstated her. Monique Howard, the executive director of WOAR: The Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, noted that his death “evokes past trauma” but acknowledged the depth of emotions surrounding his passing. But for every Sonmez and Howard, there were hundreds of friends, family and fans who looked past the rape allegation and only saw only his fame. While his rape accusation is difficult to bring up in a time of tragedy, it is just as much a part of his legacy as his professional accomplishments.
Bryant worked to put his sexual assault charge behind him in his career after basketball. But Bryant’s treatment is emblematic of a larger trend within sports involving teams and fans quickly moving past allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence so long as an athlete is productive. Baseball players like Aroldis Chapman – who was suspended under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence rules – soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo – who allegedly raped a woman in 2009 – and football players like Tyreek Hill – who allegedly abused his partner and child on multiple occasions – were all accused of committing heinous acts but were still worshipped by fans.
Chapman, a pitcher who was charged with domestic violence in 2016, plays for the New York Yankees, a team I support. I understand why the Yankees wanted him – he is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. But they brought Chapman in amid his allegations while other teams walked away.
Even after the Yankees traded Chapman during the last year of his contract, they brought him back that offseason, signing him to a record-breaking deal. Watching my favorite team bring back one of my least favorite players felt like a punch to the gut. Rooting for my team meant rooting for an organization willing to employ a domestic abuser. I cannot bring myself to cheer for Chapman’s professional success, but I still want to support my team. In Bryant’s situation, I want to mourn Bryant’s on-court career, but I struggle to balance his achievements with his off-court conduct.
Chapman’s behavior and his dismissive comments after the fact infuriate, disappoint and disgust me. But I am still a Yankees fan. I want to hold my team to account and not ignore the problems altogether. If both the organization and the player had owned up to their mistakes, rooting for the team would be a lot easier. The same is true for remembering Bryant – acknowledging his failures makes it easier to celebrate his legacy.
Of course we should celebrate the good in Bryant’s life, including his work ethic, his philanthropy and his commitment to family. But focusing solely on the good while ignoring or shutting down the bad creates an incomplete snapshot of Bryant. His “Black Mamba” nickname and persona were not spontaneous creations – they were born from the personal and professional pressure he felt after the rape case became public.
If nothing else, fans of Bryant – even grudging ones like me – should acknowledge that his behavior and its repercussions affected his professional career. Ignoring Bryant’s personal history denies us a full understanding of his basketball life. Honoring his whole legacy requires a complete picture, including the bad parts. If fans find they cannot appreciate Bryant when considering the totality of his past, then they only ever recognize his alter ego.
Matthew Zachary, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a columnist.