It’s hard staying silent during a riot.
The tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday, January 26, 2020 shocked the world. Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who was a talented basketball player, Gianna’s AAU basketball teammates Alyssa Altobelli, along with her parents John and Keri, and Payton Chester, along with her mother Sarah, Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser, as well as pilot Ara Zobayan all died in a helicopter crash that morning. After several news outlets confirmed the occurrence of this incident, people worldwide began holding vigils, sharing heartfelt messages, and grieving over the victims.
Due to his notoriety Bryant received the most attention, with mainstream media dedicating tributes to the NBA legend and remembering his life, achievements, and legacy. He was a man of many abilities and accomplishments, and positively influenced numerous individuals worldwide. However, some media figures chose to also speak on or highlight his troubled past. For example, during a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, dedicated to Bryant, host Jimmy Kimmel began with an opening monologue, where he said the following:
“Yes, I know he was not a perfect person. I understand that. My intention is not to canonize him or make judgments about things I don’t know anything about.”
Kimmel was likely referring to Bryant being charged with both sexual assault and false imprisonment of a 19-year-old woman at a Colorado resort in 2003. When reflecting on the NBA legend’s life during a segment on ESPN’s “The Jump,” host Rachel Nichols also made note of the charges brought against him, stating:
“Kobe’s story is complicated. He did not live a perfect life. He was not a saint. The sexual assault charge in Colorado is going to be part of his story.”
It is true that the Colorado incident will forever be part of Bryant’s life story. However, despite him being cleared of criminal activity in 2004 some chose to demonize the NBA legend, citing this criminal case, immediately following his death. For example, Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post reporter, tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast article entitled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession” the same day news broke that Bryant died in a helicopter accident. Moreover, three days later American filmmaker and social activist Abigail Disney, a relative of Walt Disney, accused him of being a rapist.
More than meets the eye
While people are entitled to their opinions regarding Bryant’s sexual assault case, one could argue that journalists and those with a platform, or people of influence, should make sure to present all sides of the story, especially the details which led to Bryant not being charged, when commenting on the matter. Specifically, it is important to note that his accuser reportedly admitted to kissing and flirting with Bryant during their encounter, purportedly had sex with another man not long after she left him, supposedly lied about several details of the encounter to Colorado police, and allegedly bragged to peers about having sex with Bryant at a party before he was charged.
Another point to consider is that the NBA legend’s accuser was a White woman while he was a Black man. Historically, rape allegations made against Black men by White women have resulted in this demographic being widely ostracized and largely killed, even when these allegations are false. In fact, throughout US history “the illegal forcible rape of a white woman by a Black man” has been and still is “the kind of rape that has been treated most seriously” (Wriggins, 1983, pp. 104–105). While it is not impossible to believe that some Black men have raped White women, the mere accusation is enough to sway public opinion toward a guilty verdict. Unfortunately, even if the accused is proven innocent or not convicted of a crime, as was the case with Bryant, the negative stain of a rape allegation will likely follow them forever.
History repeats itself
Since American slavery, Black male sexuality has been stereotyped as bestial, wild, and in many cases criminal. Bakken and Huber (2005) asserted that the Black male has historically been depicted as a violent, pleasure-oriented individual who is cruel to women in relationships and desirous of possessing White women. Today this ideology still holds true in the eyes of many, especially subconsciously. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Black males are often found guilty in the court of public opinion when accused of rape, especially if a White woman is involved, even when innocent. Moreover, Patton and Snyder-Yuly (2007) purported that one of the greatest rape myths is that rape is largely “a crime committed by Black men against White women” (p. 862).
Imagery perpetuating negative stereotypes about Black male sexuality, thus supporting rape myths, have been seen in various movies, music videos — notably hip-hop videos, and even pornography. According to Dines (1998), D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was the first major mass circulation of the Black man as a sexual monster image in film and would eventually “become the blueprint for how contemporary mass media depict Black men” (Dines, 1998, p. 293). Furthermore, Benedict (1992) noted that despite the decline in coverage of sex crimes from the 1980s through 1990s, the media continued covering Black-against-White sex crimes with racist stereotypes, exaggerated frequency, and class prejudice (as cited in Patton & Snyder-Yuly, 2007). Ultimately, the continuous stereotyping of Black men as sexually deviant and prone to raping women has led to this demographic being considered guilty whenever they are accused of attacking or raping a White woman.
Unfortunately, rape allegations made against Black males have often led to major consequences. During the Jim Crow era, many Black men were killed after being accused of sexual assault by White women (Dorr, 2000). Beatings, burnings, lynching, and dismemberment of Black bodies have occurred throughout history as a result of rape/sexual assault allegations, even when accusations were false. Famously, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago, was tortured and killed while visiting family in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a White woman at a store. The woman, Carolyn Bryant, would later assert, during a trial in which her husband Roy Bryant was being charged for the murder, that Till grabbed and verbally threatened her. Her testimony caused her husband, who did take part in killing Till, to be found not guilty. It took until 2007 for Carolyn to admit she lied.
False accusations made against Black males regarding the rape/sexual assault of White women are well documented. One example is the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two White women near Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. These teenagers were forced to spend years fighting the Alabama judicial system and enduring the rough conditions of the Alabama prison system. A similar story unfolded with the Exonerated Five/Central Park Five, five Black teenagers, aged 14 to 16, accused of beating and raping a 28-year-old White woman named Trisha Meili in New York City during 1989. All five were tried, found guilty of the crime, and subsequently jailed. It was not until 2002 that serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to harming Meili, which eventually resulted in the convictions of the Exonerated Five being vacated. Other examples where Black men have been falsely accused of rape include the Groveland Four, which involved four Black men who were wrongly accused of raping Norma Padgett, at the time a 17-year-old White girl, in Groveland, Florida during 1949, Nikki Yovino’s lie to police in 2017 that two Black football players from Sacred Heart University raped her, which resulted in these men having to leave school and losing their scholarships, and the rape allegation made against former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman by a White woman in 2016, which potentially cost Oakman a spot on an NFL team.
It should furthermore be noted that stereotypes surrounding Black men raping White women are so entrenched in US society that several White women have even made up stories about being raped by Black men and were, prior to being found guilty of lying, believed. Examples include Katie Robb, a student at Iowa State who falsely reported being kidnapped and gang raped by four Black men, and Mary Zolkowski, a 21-year-old woman who lied about being raped by a Black man at Delta College in Bay County, Michigan.
Reaching a common ground
Given the uncertainty of the sexual assault claim made against Bryant by his accuser, one cannot absolutely say he was guilty of a crime in 2003. Nevertheless, as evidenced by Kimmel, Nichols, Sonmez, Disney, and many others, being accused of sexual assault was enough to somewhat stain the NBA legend’s legacy. Despite this, however, it is imperative that people be made aware of the negative stereotypes about Black male sexuality and how certain beliefs concerning Black men can impact how they are viewed when charged with rape/sexual assault, especially if a White woman is involved. Moreover, history has shown that Black men falsely accused of harming a White woman are often punished in some way, shape, or form (e.g., lynching, expulsion from school, imprisonment). Though Bryant was not harmed in ways that mirrored Emmett Till or the Groveland Four, he still negotiated a monetary settlement with his accuser out of court and took a hit to his reputation.
Along with the settlement, Bryant also released a statement in 2004 apologizing to his accuser. However, in his apology the NBA legend explicitly stated that he believed his encounter with her was consensual. This apology was not an admission of guilt but rather an acknowledgement that the two parties, perhaps, felt differently about the encounter.
If Bryant truly believed he and his accuser’s time spent together was consensual, though she might not have, is it fair to demonize him? Should Bryant’s apology statement be considered when making judgments about his character? One must also take into account the work he has done to help women’s causes. Speaking of which, for those who champion women’s rights and seek to better the lives of this demographic it is important that Bryant’s wife and remaining three children be thought about. Has anyone considered how accusing him of rape without conclusive evidence after a tragic accident might affect his wife and daughters emotionally? Does this woman and her girls matter?
Ultimately, there are layers to Bryant’s sexual assault case that requires a comprehensive discussion. If one decides to bring it up, they should also be responsible for explaining the entire situation beyond just a few words or a few tweets.
Bakken, L., & Huber, T. (2005). Ego development at the crossroads: Identity and intimacy among black men and white women in cross-racial relationships. Journal of Adult Development, 12(1), 63–73.
Dines, G. (1998). King kong and the white woman: Hustler magazine and the demonization of black masculinity. Violence Against Women, 4(3), 291–307.
Dorr, L. L. (2000). Black-on-white rape and retribution in twentieth-century virginia:” Men, even negroes, must have some protection”. The Journal of Southern History, 66(4), 711–748.
Patton, T. O., & Snyder-Yuly, J. (2007). Any four black men will do: Rape, race, and the ultimate scapegoat. Journal of Black Studies, 37(6), 859–895.
Wriggins, J. (1983). Rape, racism and the law. Harv. Women’s LJ, 6, 103.