This morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter did a big piece about Kobe Bryant. Lots of highlights, showing Bryant shooting, dunking, scoring. Interviews with former opponents, with former teammates, with Shaq, who was both. The occasion, the decision by the Los Angeles Lakers to retire both of his numbers. That’s right; Kobe played while wearing number 8 through 2003, then switched to 24 in 2004. Both numbers will be retired.
Professional athletes get attached to their numbers, and it’s unusual for a player to change. Kobe claimed that he asked for the change because the Lakers had just traded Shaquille O’Neal, which, said Kobe, suggested a new direction for the team. New direction; new number. From a basketball perspective, it makes sense for the Lakers to retire his number. He was easily the sixth best player in the history of the franchise; possibly even the fourth. Of course, Magic Johnson, Kareem Jabbar, Jerry West would go 1-3, and I’d put Shaq and Elgin Baylor ahead of Bryant as well. But he’s an easy vote for the Hall of Fame. A genuinely great player. Except, of course, something else happened in between.
I have to say, I find all the Kobe-love completely baffling, and especially today. The lead story on SportCenter this morning was the decision, by Carolina Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson, to sell the team, in the wake of serious (and creepy) sexual harassment allegations against him. Sports Illustrated did a big expose story about Richardson, and it took two daysm no more, for him to quit, resign, decide to sell the team. On the same day he quit, ESPN falls all over itself to praise Kobe Bryant. I truly don’t get it.
Has everyone forgotten? On June 30, 2003, Kobe Bryant checked into a hotel in Edwards, Colorado, preparing for scheduled surgery on July 2. On July 1, he had a sexual encounter with a female hotel employee. The next day, the woman reported that she’d been raped. Kobe was interrogated by the Eagle County Sheriff. He initially denied having had sexual relations with the woman. Physical evidence proved that he had. He then explained that her bruised neck was the result of rough, but consensual sex. An arrest warrant was issued, and Bryant surrendered, and was immediately released on bond.
Predictably, a media circus ensued. Bryant’s attorneys trashed the accuser’s reputation. So did national sports media. The accuser received hate mail, including death threats. Those got worse after some idiot released her name. Public attacks on her credibility were so vicious that she attempted suicide. Twice. Finally, the unrelenting pressure she endured reached the point that she decided she could no longer testify in court. Instead, she filed a civil lawsuit. That case was settled; details were not disclosed.
In the initial press conference held by Bryant after his arrest, his wife stood by his side, playing the good wife. A few days after his arrest, he bought her a four million dollar ring. Any connection between those two events is purely conjectural.
Did Kobe Bryant rape this woman? I have no idea. I wasn’t there. Was the rape charge against him plausible? Absolutely. The Eagle County Sheriff had to have known that a rape charge against a celebrity was going to turn into a big deal. The Eagle County prosecutors had to have known how difficult such a case would be to prosecute. Their defendant in the case would be able to afford first class legal representatives. They went ahead with it. Seasoned, experienced law enforcement officials thought a woman had been raped, and were willing to do whatever they had to to prosecute the rapist. Bryant even made a public statement in which he acknowledged that, although he “truly believed this encounter . . . was consensual,” he recognized “that she did not and does not view this incident the same way. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person,” (he) now “understood how she felt that she did not consent to this encounter.” He said she said? Maybe. But with physical evidence supporting her narrative. And why would she lie? She had to know that the pushback from sports fans would be ferocious.
Okay. That was then, this is now. Things have changed, very much for the better. Jerry Richardson, apparently, repeatedly asked female employees if he could shave their legs. That’s super weird and creepy and the very definition of someone creating a hostile work environment. I’m glad he’s quit; if he hadn’t, the National Football League would have been perfectly justified in kicking him out. Richardson’s actions also fall considerably shy of rape, a crime of violence, a dangerous assault.
American society is lurching uncertainly towards a place where allegations of sexual aggression and harassment and assault are taken seriously, as they should be. Men in power should never have been allowed to get away with disgusting sexual behavior. I welcome this development, as should be all.
So why does Kobe Bryant get a pass? Why has an entirely plausible rape allegation been swept under the rug?
In his first game in Utah in the 2003-4 season, Kobe Bryant was booed by the Salt Lake crowd every time he touched the basketball. It got comical; these quick bursts of booing when he’d make a touch pass. I wasn’t there; I have friends who were, and they said it was the most electric atmosphere they’d ever felt in a sporting event. And then, in 2016, on his NBA farewell tour, Jazz fans cheered him. A noble opponent, honored for his skills.
What? Why does this guy get a pass, especially now? I truly don’t get it.