As we sat down to dinner last night, my son said, “Look. Kobe died.”
I looked at the phone screen. My first thought was: he was so young and oh my gosh his daughter. My next thought was: the rape.
I have never stopped thinking about the night Kobe raped a 19-year-old woman while she was working at his hotel.
There wasn’t much public discourse about the rape back in 2003. A company could fire a woman for reporting rape. Date rape was a term to describe sort-of-ok sex. Anita Hill testified in Congress, and the men concluded she was asking for it. There was not a lot of discussion about rape because we didn’t have adequate language. Maybe that’s why the Wikipedia page quoting Kobe’s confession to rape is titled Kobe Bryant Sexual Assault Case.
I was raped at work but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe the guy was just being mean and crazy so I didn’t tell anyone. Which is why the most shocking thing to me about Kobe’s rape was that the victim told people. She got a rape kit. I was impressed. She let the police take pictures. She described the events in Kobe’s hotel room so clearly that they played over and over in my head. This is rape, I told myself. This is what it looks like, I told myself.
Today the Washington Post fired a journalist for referencing the historical importance of Kobe’s rape case. The Chicago Tribune and Atlanta Journal-Constitution ignored that Kobe admitted the sex was not consensual. And LA Times wrote a fanboy fantasy retrial masquerading as an obituary.
This onslaught of terrible journalism made me wonder if my son knew the truth.
He said, “Yeah. I know. Everyone knows.”
“Do you care?”
“Mom. I get it. It’s really bad that he did it. But he’s one of the greatest athletes of all time. It’s not fair to write about rape now. The amount of good he did in the world is huge. He donated millions of dollars to charity.”
“So if someone donates a lot of money then we should only talk about that and not the rape?”
“Mom. This is not a hot take. You’re being a fucking asshole. Just don’t write this. Did you see that there are burn marks on his daughter where he was hugging her as they died?”
I have to pause because that makes me so sad. And because I am so lucky to have my son here, alive. Also, I ask myself why I am arguing with him when I could be hugging him?
I decide an argument is sort of like a hug. I say, “So there’s no #Metoo for good dads?”
My son says, “Kobe led a life that inspired millions of people,” and then my son walks out of the room.
So I have to tell this to you: The judge in Brock Turner’s case used the same argument; he said Brock’s life had been too important to be tarnished forever by rape. The woman Brock raped — who we know now is Chanel Miller — wrote that her life is important too, and Brock tarnished it forever.
The result was that Brock Turner’s judge was recalled in a public election, and Miller’s book, Know My Name, was a bestseller. So the public has spoken. We believe that big success does not make rape go away — for either the rapist or the victim. A person is the accumulation of all of their actions.
So we need to remember that Kobe raped a 19-year-old.
The criminal prosecutor put together the case against Kobe. Key points were that the victim had marks on her neck that police deemed consistent with large hands strangling her and holding her down. And that Kobe talked with the police that evening while wearing a T-shirt that was splattered with blood later found to contain the woman’s DNA.
Kobe’s team launched an intense, multi-pronged defense. They called the woman “crazy, suicidal… and trying to get attention from her boyfriend.” The defense argued that Kobe has the right to present the woman’s medical records to the jury to show she is a liar. The defense team said the T-shirt was inadmissible in court. And also that the blood was from her period. Finally, the team threatened to countersue for saying the sex with Kobe wasn’t consensual.
Kobe’s defense lost each of those arguments. So, right before the case began, Kobe cut a deal with the victim: If she does not show up to testify Kobe will make a statement amounting to a public admission of rape. The woman filed a civil case which settled with Kobe paying the woman an unknown sum of money.
One of the reasons we should remember this case is it is a very public and clear example of why our criminal justice system does not work for sexual violence. There are huge personal risks and emotional risks for a victim to testify against her rapist, but research shows almost no emotional benefit to testifying. So the victims frequently recant which makes prosecutors reticent to press sexual violence charges. This is why very few sexual criminals go to prison.
In a civil trial, on the other hand, the victim can win financial compensation for damages if she is can get through intense preparation and emotional trauma of the trial. But the ability of powerful rapists to pay off much less powerful victims is an extreme loophole in sexual violence law. You can see this secondary system of justice play out very clearly in the Kobe Bryant rape case.
While we mourn the death of Kobe Bryant the great athlete, we need to remember that rape doesn’t disappear just because we hate having to think about it. Kobe’s victim hates thinking about the rape too, but she will live the rest of her life with the memory of Kobe raping her.
This is not 2003. It’s 2020 and we have clear, accurate language to talk about the broad category that is sexual assault. Rape is the specific, term that describes Kobe Bryant’s case. So the first step toward journalistic honesty is to edit that watered-down face-saving Wikipedia page to say Kobe Bryant’s Rape Case.
When the media rewrites Kobe’s story to make him innocent, the media rewrites women out of the story. Kobe doesn’t need to be innocent to be loved. And his victim doesn’t need to be perfect to be believed. Kobe’s death is an opportunity for journalists to report difficult truths to readers and for moms to have tough conversations with kids.