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What Kobe Bryant’s death says about American memory

As the country remembers the star, it can be a time to remember sexual assault survivors, too.

Kobe Bryant, seen from the back, surrounded by confetti.
Kobe Bryant celebrates after the Lakers defeat the Boston Celtics at Staples Center on June 17, 2010, in Los Angeles.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When news broke on Sunday that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash at the age of 41, fans remembered his skill as a player, his Oscar-winning foray into film, and his mentorship of younger athletes.

But others pointed out another aspect of the former Laker’s past: In 2003, a woman said Bryant sexually assaulted her in a Colorado hotel room. He was formally charged, but a week before the trial was set to begin, the woman agreed to the dismissal of the case provided that Bryant issue a public apology, as Marlow Stern wrote at the Daily Beast.

“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,” Bryant said in his statement. “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.”

As Jeremy Gordon wrote at the Outline, two things can be true of Bryant at the same time. He was a beloved athlete who died suddenly at a young age, in a crash that also claimed his 13-year-old daughter. He will be mourned by many, first and foremost his wife and three surviving daughters. And yet he was also charged with sexual assault, and admitted to sex that, he later realized, was not consensual.

How to reconcile those two facts is part of a bigger question: How do we remember people in death who were accused of harming others? In the legacy of someone like Bryant, where does the story of the woman who spoke up in 2003 belong?

They are questions that have been asked, in different ways, of other famous men, including George H.W. Bush, who was accused of groping multiple women late in his life. But the questions around Bryant are in some ways harder, because his death was so sudden and because he was so beloved. Reactions to his death have also led to questions about whether white critics are rushing to remember only the negative about him, without regard for his importance to black fans and athletes.

Bryant’s life was many things to many people, and his memory will be the same. But one thing is certain: This won’t be the last time American media outlets struggle with how to memorialize someone who was both beloved and accused of something terrible. And it’s an opportunity to think about how America remembers high-profile men — and those whose lives they impacted, for good and for ill.

Bryant was a beloved basketball star, father, and mentor. He was also accused of sexual assault.

Bryant started his career with the Lakers in 1996. At 18, he was the youngest player ever to play in an NBA game. In his 20 years with the team, he also became the youngest player to reach 30,000 total points and the third-highest scorer in NBA history, only recently ceding that title to LeBron James. According to Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith, Bryant was “arguably the best Los Angeles Laker ever and, without a doubt, the city’s most beloved sports figure.”

More recently, he had become known for his support of his daughter Gianna’s basketball aspirations, and women’s basketball more generally. As Smith notes, he spoke movingly of his daughter in a 2018 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, saying, “The best thing that happens is when we go out and she’ll be standing next to me and fans will come up to me, like, ‘Hey, you gotta have a boy, you and [Vanessa, his wife] gotta have a boy — somebody to carry on the legacy and the tradition,’ and [Gianna] will be, like, ‘I got this. We don’t need a boy for that. I got this!’”

Bryant also wrote and narrated “Dear Basketball,” which won an Oscar for best animated short in 2018. And as Charles Curtis notes at For the Win, he mentored countless younger athletes, both male and female.

Those are some of the highlights of his career, cut short by his death. And then there’s this: In 2003, a 19-year-old woman said that he sexually assaulted her in his room at a Colorado resort where she worked. The woman said he asked her for a private tour of the hotel, the Daily Beast reports, after which the two returned to his room.

“He started kissing me and I let him kiss me,” the woman told police. “And the kissing continued then he took off his pants. And that’s when I tried to back up and leave. And that’s when he started to choke me.

“He held me by my neck and physically forced me over to the side of the couch,” the woman said. She told police that she said no several times, but that Bryant kept holding her by the neck, then lifted up her skirt and penetrated her.

Afterward, she said he told her, “nobody is gonna know about this, you’re not going to tell anybody.”

The woman made a report to Colorado police, and when questioned, Bryant said the sex had been consensual. He maintained the same publicly as the case proceeded. At a preliminary hearing, a detective testified that the woman had injuries consistent with “penetrating genital trauma” and not with consensual sex.

Bryant’s defense team also tried to call the woman’s credibility into question, and details of her life became public in the press — including reports that four months before the assault, she had been hospitalized after trying to overdose on sleeping pills.

After months of scrutiny into her personal life, the woman agreed to the dismissal of the criminal case against Bryant in September 2004 on the condition that he provide a public apology. She continued with a civil suit, which was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2005.

Bryant initially lost endorsement deals as a result of the case, according to the Daily Beast. But by July 2005, his image was already being rehabilitated, with Nike using him in ads in Sports Illustrated. “Nike agrees with most NBA observers that Kobe ranks among the very best players in the NBA,” a company spokesperson said at the time.

Meanwhile, the woman who had spoken out had to deal with the aftermath of her account. As Moira Donegan wrote at the Guardian, “the media and Bryant’s legal team used the accuser’s real name repeatedly, and dragged out lurid details of her sexual and psychiatric history as evidence that she couldn’t be trusted. She was hounded by the media, smeared as slutty and crazy in print, and threatened by fans.”

Bryant was, ultimately, able to go back to his life as a basketball star. But the actions of those who leaked the woman’s name, and those who hounded her after it became public, surely made it harder for her to return to her life as a private citizen.

Bryant’s death is an opportunity to think about legacy — and not just his

In the wake of Bryant’s death, reactions to the two truths about him — that he was a world-class athlete and mentor, and that he was accused of assault — were intensely polarized. When Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to the Daily Beast story about the allegation, she said she received death threats, and she was suspended by the Post, as Vox’s Emily Stewart writes.

Obituary writers attempted to consider the allegation alongside Bryant’s many accomplishments, while some argued that Bryant’s critics were focusing on the former while forgetting what the star meant to his many fans, especially in black communities.

“Kobe Bryant’s untimely death has once again revealed a cultural divide. Many feminists have the capacity [to] hold space for assault survivors and mourn someone who meant so much to so many Black children and families around the world,” author and Bitch Media editor-in-chief Evette Dionne tweeted, adding that “rejoic[ing] in someone’s death” was “about moral superiority and lack of empathy, which has more to do with you than with the person who died.”

In Bryant’s case, Americans are having some of these conversations now in part because they weren’t had in 2003, or at least not in the same way. While there’s much to be done, the Me Too movement has at least given the media some vocabulary for talking about sexual assault allegations against high-profile people — it might be harder, today, for such allegations to be swept under the rug.

Bryant’s Oscar nomination in 2018 led to some renewed coverage of the 2003 allegation. But since the case had gone largely unexamined for 17 years, it felt startling to contend with the news of Bryant’s death in the same moment as a reckoning around the allegation against him. Ultimately, the controversy around Bryant points to a broader question: How should the media and the public consider the legacy of someone who meant so much to so many, and yet was also accused of great harm?

It’s a question that’s been considered before, albeit in very different ways. As Stewart noted, Sen. John McCain, who died in 2018, “was a war hero and a political powerhouse, but he also put Sarah Palin on the national stage, among other controversies.”

Then there’s Michael Jackson, the beloved pop star who has been accused of sexually abusing children. Jackson was tried in connection with such allegations during his lifetime but was acquitted, and the media and the public have embarked on a new reckoning with the reports only after the singer’s death, inspired in part by the release of the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland.

Former President George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, was the subject of laudatory obituaries when he died in 2018, as Vox’s Laura McGann wrote at the time. But eight women had also accused Bush of touching them inappropriately.

“Sexual harassment or assault can’t be bracketed off as part of a politician’s private life,” McGann wrote. “It’s an important part of the story of their leadership, their use of power, and their policy. The same is true for Bush.”

Bryant’s life and legacy are obviously very different from Bush’s. For one thing, the basketball star was not a politician. For another, he was a hero to many in marginalized communities, while Bush’s career included the infamous Willie Horton ad as well as the killing of civilians in Iraq and Kuwait.

Still, both are public figures likely destined to be remembered for years to come. And there are real questions about what that memory should look like, especially in public forums like obituaries.

It’s not a question that’s going away anytime soon. The Me Too movement is just one example — hundreds of very well-known people have been accused, in the past several years, of sexual assault or harassment. Their deaths are sure to prompt public reexamination of their lives — and what place will the allegations against them hold in that reexamination?

In the thick of the Me Too movement, it became popular to ask what should happen to the creative work of people accused of sexual misconduct. But others proposed another question: As Caroline Framke put it at Vox, “what about the people they targeted, whose resulting trauma affected their chances or ability to advance their careers and pursue their dreams? What about the great art we lost?”

In many cases, the public will never know what is lost when someone is assaulted or harassed. But it’s fair to keep in mind, when considering the legacy of someone accused of sexual assault, that the person who spoke up to report assault has a life and a legacy, too.

We don’t know about the life of Bryant’s accuser now, nor should we, although Donegan notes that “she might be hounded online, or asked for comment by reporters.” But we do know that her experience with Bryant — and his legal team, and the media — will be part of her history forever.

So as we reckon with how to memorialize people like Bryant, who have been undeniably great and also accused of great harm, we should also think about those who say they were harmed: how they are treated by the media and the public when they come forward, how their stories are remembered when all the attention has died down, and whether they’re allowed to have lives that are about more than the trauma they say they endured. They may not be public figures, but they still have a personal life and a personal legacy; people who love them and will remember them when they, too, are gone.

If American media outlets are struggling to deal with the legacy of someone like Bryant, they are having an even harder time with people like the woman who spoke up in 2003 — people whose paths intersect briefly and painfully with a public figure, and who then must figure out how to live.

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