I would dislike Kobe Bryant pretty much no matter what. I am a Portland Trail Blazers fan, and one of his greatest victories came at their expense. I’m convinced that he is not nearly as good as everyone would have you believe, on account of his heinous shot selection, his half-committed defense that he still managed to get rewarded for all the goddamn time, and his never-ending stream of superior big-man teammates who floated him to the Finals while he screamed at them in practice and whined about them to reporters. His endless boring turnarounds are dull. His hard-work mystique is the most performative crap imaginable—he once stayed late in the arena after a game to get up shots after an embarrassing loss, luxuriating in the click-clack of cameras and the breathless pen of rube sportswriters who bought into his devotion to the game whole hog. I even think his shoes are ugly.
But that loathing is separate from the most hideous fact of Kobe’s life: he was charged with raping a hotel employee in Colorado. The details of the incident are heinous: blood and semen evidence, vaginal tearing consistent with sexual assault, bruising on the accuser’s neck, and blood on Bryant’s shirt. The criminal case was dropped when his accuser refused to testify in public, after Bryant’s team leaked her name, brought up her sexual history to deflect from Bryant’s culpability, and questioned her mental stability. Kobe also weirdly dimed on Shaquille O’Neal when he was being questioned by the police, claiming that he’d spent a million dollars buying things for women to bury stuff.
In lieu of exposing herself to harsh public scrutiny in an ongoing criminal trial, Bryant’s accuser accepted an apology that reads like a weird half-confession: “No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. 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. 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.” The civil case was settled out of court.
This week, that accusation and the ensuing legal action caught up with Bryant, when he was booted from the jury at the Animation Is Film Festival, an action spurred by a Change.Org petition asking the festival and its sponsors to exile Bryant on account of the rape allegation. “This is an urgent time to say NO to toxic and violent behavior against women,” the petition read. “Keeping Kobe Bryant on the jury sets a precedent of lenience for sexual criminals and further undermines the visibility and respect that victims of harassment and assault deserve.”
Bryant, who won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short earlier this year for a cloying tribute to basketball he produced and narrated, didn’t even engage with the content of his being ousted, telling Variety that the festival’s decision to oust Bryant from the jury “...further motivates me and my commitment to building a studio that focuses on diversity and inclusion in storytelling for the animation industry.” He couldn’t even get kicked off without telling everyone about his pursuit of excellence—that’s how insufferable this guy is.
Bryant, stepping out of sports and into other worlds where he hopes to find success, was hit with the broader movement in the culture of talking about and denigrating sexual violence and sexually-violent offenders. You are, of course, familiar with the very public people the #MeToo movement has managed to expose: Bill Cosby’s reputation is in ruins, Kevin Spacey was killed off of House of Cards, and Harvey Weinstein’s been kicked out of the film Academy, his lifetime in the industry regarded now as an embarrassment. The entertainment industry is ashamed of their association with these men, and when another one tried to integrate himself into their ranks, they blanched. Not before giving him an Oscar for a stupid ESPN puff piece—but eventually.
In the world of professional sports, however, Kobe has not encountered those same problems. After his trial, the Lakers stood by him, shipped Shaq out of town when he and Kobe started wanting to murder each other, paid him obscene amounts of money, stuck him on the front of the building, retired his number, and did everything they could to keep him in the orbit of the organization. He’ll make the Hall of Fame without even trying. Sports columnists revere his work ethic in print, ESPN airs his dumb videos about players, his agent was named the general manager of the Lakers a few years ago. None of what happened in Colorado made anyone in the league or the sports media terribly queasy about working with him, apparently.
He’s not the only one. Ben Roethlisberger was accused of some particularly hideous things, and yet, he continues as the quarterback of the Steelers to this day. Lance Stephenson was arrested after throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs, and this summer he joined LeBron on the Lakers. Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was suspended for 40 games when he got in a domestic altercation with his now-ex-wife, and yet, there he is, still on the Cubs, still hauling in checks.
What is it about sports that makes athletes immune to the cultural shift in attitudes about violence against women? Why, even as other industries are outright purging the rapists and domestic abusers in their ranks, does the world of high-end professional sports continue to drag its feet? Certainly, of course, the primacy of men in positions of power in sports contributes to the problem. GMs, coaches and owners are all overwhelmingly male, working in offices without a lot of women in basketball operations—there are only two female assistant coaches in the entire NBA—and the lack of voices in favor of other considerations aside from on-court production are probably hard to come by.
But I believe it runs a little deeper than that. Sports have a tendency to frame winning in validating terms. If a team wins, its function is complete, and whatever it does to get there tends to get swept aside. This creates a kind of alternate morality for sports teams, one where winning titles and growing toward your goals as an individual and an organization is an unambiguous, moral good and losing, no matter why it might be happening, is a nightmare—a betrayal of the fans, a moral failure and a stain on your character.
This system of values is refracted in the choices franchises make: they might sign someone who treats women like garbage because they know he can contribute, and the fans and the media will set aside every troubling thing about them as long as the moral good of winning is being properly pursued. And then, if and when it works, the sports media will also totally ignore their morally questionable dealing with people who perpetrate violence against women, rendering it irrelevant, or worse, an obstacle to overcome, in the light of victory.
If this is going to change, and God knows it should, it has to start with the sports media. We can’t accept the myopic view of sports that teams would have us adopt—one that exiles troubling things, be it violence against women, economic ruin brought on by disastrous stadium projects, or any other malfeasance created by teams and players. Sports media has to recognize there is a broader morality in this world than winning, and try to communicate that to its audience. Hopefully, teams will catch on sooner rather than later, tear Kobe’s number from their rafters and be thankful that they never have to watch him play ever again.