In our work, we adamantly believe survivors and support those who have been victimized by sexual violence. After basketball megastar Kobe Bryant’s unfortunate passing, the commentary worldwide was split. We received a (long) question from one of our regular readers: Should Bryant be forgiven for his transgressions or will his legacy always be overshadowed by the events of that unfortunate night? What do you think?
No one really knows what happened that night in Colorado. No one will ever really know except for Kobe Bryant and the human who accused him but that’s usually the situation with the vast majority of sexual assault cases. It becomes he said/she said and patriarchy ensures more credibility is assigned to the “he said” of the story. I understand that flaw in the system, and I also understand the core issues associated with the ways law enforcement and the justice system tend to grant men an unsettling level of sympathy and understanding at the expense of their human accusers.
Victims are re-assaulted in court, have their character/intelligence/value as a human prosecuted and the onus of self-control and wise decision-making in the circumstances leading up to assault is placed squarely on the victims’ shoulders. People struggle to comprehend that if a victim could have avoided the assault, s/he would have and the people within these systems force them to prove that they were subdued by the physical or conceptual power of the perpetrator making refusal or departure impossible. In effect, victims are forced to prove their victimhood, not the guilt of the accused.
I also understand that systems always tend to favor men who are well-capitalized, famous, talented and influential in the public sphere. And I’ve also read quite a bit on the inhumane and unjust backlogs of rape kits in police departments across the country. I provide all this detail on my understanding of systemic issues to make sure it’s clear that I understand the horrible, seemingly insurmountable hurdles human victims of sexual assault face in the process of seeking justice, but here’s where I need opinion assistance:
The number of public personalities who’ve had sexual assault allegations brought against them is unnerving and frightening and almost none of these men have accepted responsibility for their actions. Of all those who’ve been accused, I believe Bryant handled this case the right way. Yes, no matter how you spin it, he made stupid decisions that night. He may very well have assaulted that human being that night, and I’m not trying to excuse away his actions. What I am saying, though, is what he did in response to the situation was a strong example of what people should do.
Essentially his statement said that when he stepped outside of himself and assessed how he behaved that night, he understood how his actions could be interpreted as rape, and even though he may not have realized it during the encounter, he understood what he did was unacceptable. He even said if she viewed his actions as a sexual assault then that’s what it was and apologized for any hurt he caused her and her family, with an added apology to his own family. No man in Bryant’s position ever does that. No public relations firm is ever going to sign off on a statement like the one he gave, but he made the decision to say what he said. Men in that position don’t do it because no one requires them to.
We don’t know why the victim dropped her case but she did. We know they reached a settlement in the civil trial and Bryant paid whatever was required. If she dropped the case, how is he held accountable for not going to jail? And if he did as the court mandated in the civil trial, did he not accept retribution for his offense?
He acknowledged and apologized in a public statement that accepted responsibility and was more introspective than required of someone in his position. Most importantly, Bryant did not appear to have committed the same offense again.
If Bryant continued to perpetrate, we would have heard about it by now. There’s no reason for us to not have in 2020 with the #MeToo movement creating more space and safety for victims of sexual assault. In this environment, even those who have signed non disclosure agreements have freedom in the public sphere to call out high profile sexual predators.
So, what do we want from anyone who messes up, no matter who they are? We want them to take ownership of their actions. We want them to take responsibility, acknowledge their wrongdoing and learn from their mistakes. We want them to never to make the same mistakes again. He covered all those bases. What more should anyone expect of him?
It irritates me when I hear people bringing Bryant’s sexual assault case up as a means of chipping away at the resoundingly positive impact he’s had on many people. I believe he was being sincere in his apology statement, and if he stayed silent or issued an unsympathetic, self-centered and categorical denial, I would likely agree with people still bringing it up. But because he handled it correctly, in my view, every time it’s been brought up, especially by white people, it feels as though they’re using it as a way to dethrone and make people question the overwhelmingly positive response the life of a Black man had on sports and millions of people.
When people publicly take responsibility for their actions, apologize, accept punishment, learn from the experience and never perpetrate again, their transgression becomes a footnote to me. They’ve done what needs to be done to earn my forgiveness. They’ve carried through on what is required in order for their hugely positive influence on the world to not be tainted by that transgression.
And not one of those people would want all the good things they’ve done and all positive influence they’ve had be forever overshadowed by wrongs they’ve done that they did everything required of them and more to make right. It’s unfair and it’s glaringly hypocritical.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.