This week, millions celebrated Kobe Bryant’s legendary career, which culminated in an absurd 60-point performance off 50 shots. (Could there be a more Kobe-esque way for him to go out, minus the assist at the very end?)
Yet after the thousands of fans had left the Staples Center, after the confetti had been cleared and Bryant had taken off his No. 24 jersey for good, what was left of one of the most beloved — and often most hated — players of all time?
What Kobe could do on the court is undisputed, but no one argues that Kobe was a nice guy (Kevin Durant called him an asshole, for God’s sake) and that’s OK; being one is not a requirement for a professional athlete.
But when a player is charged with sexual assault, as Kobe was in 2003, things get a little more murky: He’s not simply an asshole; he’s an asshole who (allegedly) forced himself on a 19-year-old woman.
To many, bringing up the rape accusations against Kobe has no place in the discussion that has taken place over his legacy as a champion, All-Star and professional athlete.
I’m not here to argue whether or not the alleged assault happened. No one besides Kobe and the accuser knows and will probably ever know what happened in that hotel room that July night.
But as we look back on his career and determine how we want to remember him, I think it’s worth asking whether the possibility of him raping this woman should be part of his legacy, or whether we should allow ourselves to separate the athlete from the person.
This proposition is coming from the Baltimore native who cheered on Ray Lewis for years following his supposed involvement in a murder. Whenever someone were to use the whole “Ray Lewis is a murderer” line, I always came up with some excuse to exonerate him — “He was there, but he didn’t do anything; he’s not a murderer.”
Many people would argue that separating the athlete and the person is an acceptable thing to do. As sports fans, much of our admiration stems from how these athletes perform on the court or on the field. We can laud the player but know that he isn’t the best guy off the field. These days, this is what society mostly does: focuses on the athlete and less on the person once he steps out of the spotlight.
But then why do I still find myself cringing at this notion?
It’s because it scares me that sports fans, and sometimes myself, can so easily choose to be complacent over the often appalling atrocities that athletes commit off the court. Why don’t we feel strongly enough about Kobe’s alleged rape that we stop watching him or celebrate him less? Why aren’t we disgusted with him like we would be with a non-superstar rapist?
What becomes even more problematic, and probably exacerbates our ideals of athletes, is when the law doesn’t separate the athlete and person. If Kobe Bryant wasn’t NBA All-Star and three-time champion Kobe Bryant at the time of his arrest, if he didn’t have the financial resources or the backing of the media and public on his side, would he have spent the last 13 years in jail?
We see this issue with other athletes as well: Why aren’t we more outraged that Jameis Winston is playing in the NFL? That even my beloved Ray Lewis will be remembered for his tenacity, two Super Bowl rings and his dancing skills, but not for his likely involvement in the death of another human being?
As consumers and admirers of sports, we hold these athletes — who make us believe in the improbable and seemingly defy the impossible — so close to our hearts that we can’t let them go when they betray our perceptions of who they are.
The more I think about it, I’m not sure how I feel about the sports industry being filled with the likes of Greg Hardy, Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant. But beyond that, it’s just as concerning that we sports fans idolize these figures to such an extent that we are complacent or apathetic over how they act when the jersey comes off.
I don’t think athletes necessarily need to be held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens; they are, at the end of the day, people too. But perhaps it’s worth reconsidering — particularly when athletes enact serious harm on others — how we choose to remember them, and whether we should stop separating the player from the athlete and start caring about both.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.