Referring to Kobe Bryant as a “rapist” is a technical foul

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My immediate response to the tragic death of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was almost as shocking to me as the incident itself. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a Lakers fan since the early ’70s as a high school student in Anaheim, California. The Lakers have been “my team” through the ensuing decades, including 11 championships, the last five of which were shared with my wife, Mari, who joined me as a Lakers fan after we married in 1999. 

So, it follows that the death of one of my Lakers heroes would affect me on an emotional level, but the depth of my reaction was startling.

After hearing the news, and in a state of disbelief, I walked into the kitchen to tell Mari what I had just learned. My introductory sentence came out just fine: “I don’t even know how to tell you this,” I began. Not wanting her to fantasize excessively about what would come next, I tried to continue. “Kobe Bryant… (pause, unable to speak)… was killed… (longer pause, becoming increasingly emotional)… in a helicopter… (head in hands, struggling to force the final word out)… crash.”

I was immediately struck by the powerful reaction I was having. After all, I didn’t know Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant was not a close friend or family member. He was just a basketball player I had admired. Why was I this upset? I pondered this for the rest of the day as I followed the story, thirsting for details, unable to turn my attention elsewhere.

As I sat in front of the TV, switching from one channel to the next, it was striking to me that this story was so big that the mainstream media had finally found something more compelling to cover than the Trump impeachment. Shortly thereafter, like a punch in the gut, the news arrived that Kobe Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, had been with him at the time of the crash, along with seven others, on their way to a youth basketball tournament. As the story unfolded, it was clear that I was hardly alone in struggling to process the devastating details.

My day had been hijacked, and my thoughts were fixated on one particular theme: Why do we ascribe such significance to certain sports heroes that they occupy the status of a beloved central figure in our lives? As I was contemplating this, I became aware of an equally disproportionate but opposite reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death.  

Switching back and forth from TV to social media, I noticed a post that simply read: “Kobe Bryant,” followed by a series of “sad face” emojis. About three comments down the thread, the following appeared: “Are we supposed to feel sad that a rapist died?” Upon reading this I became incensed, and my outrage — and the subsequent rare comment that I posted in response — raised a fundamental question: “Do we have the right to refer to someone, anyone, who has been accused of rape as a ‘rapist?’” The question of whether we should make any mention of the incident, no matter how we refer to it, within hours of the individual’s tragic death is valid, but diminished to the point of irrelevant within the context of this larger question.

As disturbing as this first example was, I was able to write it off as one of the many inappropriate things people post on social media. But the next example was an article written by a professional journalist who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time and Cosmopolitan. In an 1,800-word article on her personal website, Jill Filipovic opines about Bryant’s “complicated” legacy, stating, “…Kobe Bryant raped a woman.” A one-sentence comment on someone’s Facebook page is one thing; an article by a recognized journalist is an entirely different matter. Now the issue of whether it is proper to refer to someone who has been accused of rape as a “rapist” morphs into another, possibly even more compelling question: Is it irresponsible for a professional writer to forego proper journalistic protocol and represent her opinion as fact in order to make a point? There are many who have done so in the wake of this tragedy, and we must stand up to it. 

It is critical to acknowledge that, while there are millions of admirers who consider Kobe Bryant to have been the embodiment of human athletic perfection — physical strength and beauty, superstar-like talent, unparalleled work ethic, indomitable commitment to success — there is also a substantial group of people for whom Kobe Bryant represents something completely different. For many, Kobe Bryant is the “poster boy” for the pampered, privileged, overpaid athlete who can misbehave at will and maneuver his way out of a jam with his wealth and celebrity status. It is undeniable that many celebrities, and particularly sports figures, have done just that, and we are all understandably fed up with the multi-tiered justice system of our culture.

Nevertheless, there are certain principles — both legal and ethical — that must be considered here. The long overdue #MeToo movement is a powerful and necessary social justice campaign which condemns sexual harassment and sexual assault, and provides support for victims. But how do we reconcile our desire to prevent and punish sexual assault with the need to uphold the presumption of innocence — aka, innocent until proven guilty — principle that is a fundamental precept of our judicial system? The many who have interjected their dissent into this story by claiming as a fact that Kobe Bryant committed rape have failed to find the balancing point between these two vital principles. Indeed, they have abandoned one for the other.

There are only two people who know exactly what transpired in that Edwards, Colorado, hotel room some 17 years ago. What we do know is that Kobe Bryant had a sexual encounter with a member of the hotel staff and was accused of rape the next day, that the evidence that was subsequently collected remains ambiguous, that the charge was dismissed before going to trial because his accuser refused to testify, and that Bryant and his accuser resolved the matter in civil court. We also know that Bryant has never since been accused of sexual impropriety (with the possible exception of extra-marital affairs, which is between his wife and him, and none of our business).

If there are some among us who feel compelled to apply a Cancel Culture approach to the life and times of Kobe Bryant, so be it. Whether the 2003 encounter was consensual or not, at a minimum Bryant cheated on his wife and admitted that he had done so on other occasions. He also infamously had strained relationships with some of his fellow NBA players, most notably Shaquille O’Neal, who left the Lakers after the 2004 season as a result, and Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who referred to Bryant as “uncoachable,” in his book, The Last Season. And in 2011, Bryant directed an anti-gay slur at a (non-gay) referee during a game. All worthy of criticism.

However, to refer to Kobe Bryant as a “rapist” is not supported by the facts as we know them, as he was never tried or convicted of rape, nor did he confess or acknowledge having committed a sex crime. To do so is to place Kobe Bryant in the same category as Bill Cosby, who was accused of various forms of sexual misconduct by more than 60 women, convicted of the same in three cases and currently incarcerated; Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach who was found guilty of 45 of 52 counts of rape and sexual abuse and currently serving a de facto life sentence; and even Louis C.K., who acknowledged (“these stories are all true”) multiple acts of sexual misconduct; and many others.

There is a reason that millions of people worldwide are grieving over the death of someone who they didn’t personally know. Kobe Bryant was more than a mere basketball player; he was a true champion, worthy of our admiration for the way that he battled through and overcame adversity — on the basketball court and in his private life. His example is a source of inspiration that we too could meet and conquer the challenges in our lives. And he did so not only in spite of his human imperfections but because of them. 

It is appropriate to allow Kobe Bryant his well-earned legacy as a legendary, even iconic athlete who represented his sport, his community, and the human race through dedication, commitment, discipline and an unparalleled work ethic. To do otherwise delegitimizes the very real grief felt by the millions he touched. And far from mutually exclusive is the way his story underscores the need to continue to double down on our commitment to condemn sexual assault and protect the weak from the powerful, in all walks of life, and under all circumstances.

Finally, we need to hold journalists — even “citizen journalists” — accountable for the accuracy of what they write and post. Our profession is under siege at this time like never before, at least among free societies. And when we post or otherwise publish accounts of current events or other information that has not been verified for accuracy, we throw another log on the fire of “fake news,” thereby creating a smoke screen that serves to obfuscate truth and empower those with a deceptive agenda.