We can grieve Kobe Bryant while still honouring survivors of sexual assault

When I first learned of Kobe Bryant’s sudden and tragic death, I felt immediate sadness for his wife and children. They lost not only a husband and a father, but also a child and a sister in Bryant’s teenage daughter Gianna, known to many as Gigi.

I also felt a jolt of dread, as I knew that Bryant’s complicated legacy was going to make navigating his death extremely challenging.

Although much of the reaction to Bryant’s death has constituted a wide outpouring of love, there were also a number of people who swiftly brought up the most problematic part of his past. In 2003, an employee at a Colorado hotel where the NBA star had been staying accused him of rape.

Her accusations were detailed and considered credible. Bryant ultimately admitted adultery, but never criminal guilt, later settling a civil suit over the accusation that included a written apology. Although the criminal case was dropped, it was after Bryant’s accuser’s name and reputation were harshly scrutinised in the media (to Bryant’s benefit). 

I agree with the sentiment that is fine to discuss Bryant’s rape case and that it not should not be whitewashed. A tragic death does not negate one’s history and all it entails. This is certainly true when said history includes rape allegations. However, I am also not a fan of telling people how to feel.

I feel terrible for Bryant’s accuser, particularly how the coverage and discussion of his death and legacy might be triggering. The same goes for other victims of sexual violence who have seen no justice against their abusers and are reminded of that today.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel for Bryant’s family, as well as his fans – my family members, my friends, my colleagues, and all of the internet strangers I follow on various platforms for varying reasons – who are devastated by his passing because of the joy he brought them and because of the way he inspired them. 

It is difficult to watch those who played with him as teammates and competitors, and who loved, respected, and admired him, visibly crying about losing someone close to them so suddenly at just 41 years old.

And it would be pertinent to remember that they are remembering the 20-year career of a basketball legend, a prodigiously talented black man admired by the world who played, coached and worked as an entrepreneur, investor and film-maker. They are not apologising for rape by mourning what he represented to so many Americans.

Bryant said he began using helicopters in order to spend more time with his children. “I wound up missing like a school play because I was sitting in traffic – I had to figure out a way where I could still train… but still not compromise family time,” he said in an interview when asked about his unusual mode of transportation.

Undoubtedly he was a dedicated father, who thought his talented daughter Gianna would ultimately be his heir in the sport he loved.

When people are reminded of the fragility of life in such a harsh way, it evokes emotions. Understandably, that is magnified when the person in question is the cultural behemoth that was Kobe Bryant.

And Bryant did show a capacity for growth. As The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith both note in their Bryant obits, some evidence of this includes his shifting thoughts on the death of Trayvon Martin; his going from the person being fined for using homophobic slurs to the person scolding fans for using “gay” as an insult years later, and his open condemnation of Donald Trump.

I, like Smith, wonder, “Could Bryant have also been pushed to take more direct action to stop sexual violence, or done so of his own accord, and what would that action have looked like? Would he have been embraced?

It’s a shame that never happened, especially when he publicly reckoned with his mistakes elsewhere. 

Bryant’s life begets questions about how seriously we take sexual assault and whether or not people can move on from their past, but he is no longer the person to have this debate about. He is gone.

While that raises so many varied feelings for so many people, we have to remember that there is no right way or wrong way to feel. We have to make space for people to grieve him without shaming them for that grief. He may have done something terrible, but those who loved what else he stood for are not bad people, and their emotions are valid.

Bryant is a symbol, a memory and an ideal to millions. Those millions should have to reconcile all the man, but it’s also important to remember that grieving for a flawed person – or, more pointedly, a person accused of hurting someone – is not necessarily an endorsement of their behaviour. 

As my friend, writer Ashley Ford, put it on Twitter: “There are no wrong feelings, just thoughtless ways of communicating strong ones. Which is a forgivable slight when we have it in us to forgive, but sometimes, we don’t. That’s fine. Maybe we can just be a little more gentle with one another today.”

I’m not surprised some have elected not to be more gentle with Kobe Bryant in the immediate aftermath of his death. But we feel how we feel. And it’s OK – or, at the very least, it will have to be.

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