An NBA star is accused of some sort of sex crime, and the usual “he said, she said” begins, while there’s a collective yawn from the public. Unless the star is Kobe Bryant and his hometown is Los Angeles. The instant Bryant was accused, the coverage has been nonstop. From the major networks to the cable channels and even the entertainment shows, Bryant’s tribulations have been the lead story. The initial reaction any NBA star getting in trouble is always “here we go again.” But with Bryant, it’s been just the opposite. Much of the press and the public don’t want to believe that Kobe could be involved in this kind of situation. The Sheriff in Eagle County, Colorado even was dismayed by the attention given to Bryant instead of the alleged victim.
But Kobe has built a reservoir of good will during his career in the public eye. He’s cooperative with the media, signs autographs for fans, and usually says the right things (in English or Italian, he’s fluent in both). He’s married. He and his wife have a child. He has a reputation for staying at home, or in his hotel room instead of sampling the nightlife in various NBA cities. His teammates say the crime he’s accused of is completely out of character for Bryant. Usually when something comes up that seems out of character for a public figure, there’s first a trickle, then a flood of corroborating stories that follow. Gary Hart wasn’t forced out of the Presidential race because of a picture taken with Donna Rice. It was the flood of other women who came forward with a similar story. Bryant’s situation is just the opposite. The women whom he’s had relationships with in the past (and it can’t be that many, he’s only 24) have defended him and his demeanor. Even the woman he left behind to marry his current wife said he was incapable of that kind of behavior.
The accuser has used a variety of surrogates to get her story out in public, calling on friends to appear on national television and offer quotes for the print media. They began by saying she came from a good family, was a popular cheerleader at the local high school and was liked by everyone. She couldn’t possibly be skirting the truth. Then the stories regarding her recent personal problems and ultimately her alleged attempt suicide surfaced. Her character is called into question. Her emotional stability seemed as anything but. Associates claimed she bragged about the encounter at a series of parties a week after she levied the charges.
The media has played a large role in how this thing is playing out. If Kobe played in Cleveland instead of L.A., would Inside Edition lead with “the latest in the Kobe Bryant situation”? A national sports magazine recently reported that several NBA players had fathered many children with multiple mothers all over the country, yet that story never made it out of the sports broadcast of the local news. Kobe Bryant’s press conference was carried live on national television by nearly every outlet. Why? So people could form an opinion for themselves? Or because this story has just the right amount of titillation and celebrity to attract viewers?
Bryant’s accuser’s identity is protected from being broadcast by law. Sexual assault was considered the most under-reported crime 35 years ago. Lawmakers reasoned, rightly so, that protecting the victim’s identity would allow more of them to come forward with complaints. The law has officially kept her identity hidden, although its spread all over the Internet and in some cases talk radio. While protecting victim’s rights is important, in this case there’s something not right about it.
Bryant has already been tried and convicted by some because of the media coverage. What if he’s found innocent? Does he get his reputation back? Do we reveal the accuser as a fraud? The penalty if found guilty is severe; being found not guilty shouldn’t have a punishment of its own, just because you’re famous. Bryant has admitted to an adulterous relationship with his accuser. He says the sex was consensual. Recently, two state courts have clarified the law regarding the definition of consensual sex, saying that if any time during the engagement one partner decides to say no, it changes from consensual sex to rape.
Will this case be tried on that notion? When did she decide this was the wrong thing to do? Lawyers will debate her original motives when she appeared at Bryant’s hotel door shortly after her working shift ended. The league is holding its collective breath, hoping the other shoe doesn’t drop on Kobe. He’s their image, their role model. A black man, who has tremendous skills, can converse at just about any level, plays for a high profile team and wins championships. Did you know Kobe was black? Or for some is he not black enough? There’s even a conspiracy theory that the whole thing is a sham, something to give Kobe some street credibility among black city kids so they’ll buy his shoe. As preposterous as that sounds, Allen Iverson’s street “image’ is given the credit as the primary factor for the popularity of his shoes. The whole marketing of the “thug life” is irresponsible to begin with, and the basketball shoe makers walk a fine line in trying to appeal to an urban audience yet staying on the right side of the law.
Bryant’s deal with a soda manufacturer was based on his clean image, easily appealing to mainstream audiences. Selling a basketball shoe is a whole other story. Who’s buying basketball shoes these days? Jr. High, High School and College age males. What demographic makes up this buying group? Young, black males. And how do you reach this demographic group? By getting one of their heroes to endorse your shoe. One of their heroes who has the right blend of skills and street appeal. Shoe sales notwithstanding, Bryant has said he’s innocent, and when all of the evidence is revealed, he’ll be exonerated. I believe him. Unless Kobe is about to disappoint all of us with some dark side he’s been hiding, some money will exchange hands between lawyers, and this episode will be over. It’s a long stretch for a lot of people to think Bryant could be that far out of line.