Flaherty: A Person Can Be Many Things

Kobe Bryant was an icon, but greatness doesn't erase harm.

by Maggie Flaherty | 1/30/20 2:30am

An athlete who inspired a generation can be a rapist. A parent can be a rapist. Someone who died too young can be a rapist. And yes, Kobe Bryant was a rapist.

In 2003, Bryant had what he claimed was consensual sex with a 19-year-old woman who worked at a hotel at which he was staying at in Edwards, CO. Bryant was 24. After the encounter, the woman went to the police. In the course of their investigation, the police discovered DNA on Bryant’s clothing matching the victim. After the media and Bryant’s legal team dragged the victim’s personal history through a public spotlight, the rape charge was dropped. The woman then filed a civil lawsuit which was settled behind closed doors.

A year after the charges, Bryant’s sponsorships were still valued at at least $13 million a year, and five years after the incident, he was named the NBA’s MVP. His reputation did not take a very hard hit, and any hit it did take seems to have been washed away with time. The biggest story to come out of the case was the $4-million apology ring he purchased for his wife.

In a statement made through his attorney, Bryant said, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did . . . I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” In other words, Bryant acknowledged that his victim experienced a rape but blamed the way she “felt” about the encounter instead of accepting his own culpability.

I want to make it clear that there are many perpetrators who know exactly what they are doing. They know the other person is not okay with what’s going on and they proceed regardless. But there are also perpetrators who may not understand in the moment that what they are doing is assault. Due to a lack of education, unawareness of power dynamics or their own entitlement, they do not understand why someone might not feel comfortable saying no — and they don’t see any need to ask for a yes. 

Bryant, based on his statement his statement, seems to have some understanding of what he did. He knew that the woman had a different experience than his own, but he failed to take responsibility for the harm he caused, and he certainly did not face any significant consequences.

This happens at Dartmouth, too. A Dartmouth student may assault someone and only realize it afterwards — or sometimes never at all. Either way, being held accountable is rarely part of the story.

Ignorance about the impact of one’s actions does not excuse the harm done. One person can think a sexual encounter is consensual while the other endures a traumatic experience that is no less real because of the perpetrator’s (willful) ignorance. As a society, we need to recognize that two people can experience the same situation in wildly different ways. More than that, we need to listen to the person who walks away traumatized. The fact that a perpetrator can be a father, a friend or an accomplished athlete does not make it okay to ignore the horrible things they’ve done.

Kobe Bryant was an exceptional athlete who inspired a generation. I’m not arguing that we should forget that, or that it is wrong to mourn him. The crash that killed him, his daughter and their friends is an unquestionable tragedy. But we also need to face the fact that Bryant was a perpetrator of sexual violence. Someone is still living with the trauma he caused. And in light of that, we need to remember Bryant’s actions in their entirety.

Bryant’s story isn’t unique. That person accused of rape at Dartmouth might be your best friend. They might have a significant other. They might have been that upperclassman who was nice to you when you were a first-year. That person might go on to do great things in the world. You might be inspired by them, just as you were inspired by Bryant. But none of that changes the fact that they perpetrated sexual violence.

So as we celebrate Bryant’s many accomplishments and mourn his untimely death, we must keep in mind this fundamental truth: The person we celebrate might still be someone’s rapist.

Flaherty is a member of the Class of 2021.

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