Seeing flaws in our heroes

Considering Kobe's victim

Is it time for sainthood or a public reckoning? I was thinking about that Sunday as my phone beeped with tribute after tribute for Kobe Bryant.

No one can deny Bryant was one of the great athletes of his generation and died much too soon. But it is also undeniable that a 2003 sexual assault charge is part of his legacy as well. Almost none of the tributes I saw following the helicopter crash mentioned the rape allegation.

Being a sexual assault survivor myself, I kept thinking of how painful this must be for his accuser to see the man she says raped her lauded as a fallen hero.

One of the Facebook posts that caught my attention was from Illinois state Rep. Jehan A. Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria. She posted over a Bryant family portrait: "The measure of a man is how he treats his family. Everything else is extra." She added the hashtags: #familyman #champion #legend #husband #icon #father.

I cringed when I read it. My perspective of the 2003 incident is that Bryant was at best an adulterer. At worst, he was a rapist. But we all see things through the lens of our life experiences. For Gordon-Booth, one of those experiences was the loss of a stepson to violence in 2014.

"I thought of his wife and his children. I know what grief is like. I used to be a Kobe hater. I thought he was really arrogant. But in the last four or five years I became a Kobe liker. I saw how he treated his girls. He acted like he won the lottery with those daughters. So many men in the NBA fail to be good fathers. But he didn't."

I appreciate the state representative providing that perspective. I keep coming back to what happened in 2003.

Bryant's accuser said that they kissed consensually and she started to pull away when he pulled down his pants. She said he groped her and rubbed against her even as she told him "no" and that he eventually forcibly inserted himself inside her.

At the time the woman was 19. She reported her case to the police right away. When they questioned Bryant, he denied three times that he had intercourse with her. His denials ceased when he learned they'd taken semen and blood evidence. He then admitted the two had had sex.

But he insisted it was consensual.

There was blood on the woman's underwear and on Bryant's shirt. The prosecution during discovery presented evidence of numerous lacerations near the accuser's vagina. The defense said she was promiscuous and eager to meet Kobe Bryant.

Today, we call such assertions slut-shaming. Back then there wasn't even a comparable term.

Despite a journalism stricture of not revealing identities of alleged sexual assault victims, the woman's name and photo appeared on the covers of supermarket tabloids and all over the internet.

My friend and former colleague Kristy Eckert covered the case for the local newspaper, the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel back in 2003.

We chatted Monday, and this is what she shared: "There was no support system out there for that woman like there is today with the #MeToo movement. That poor girl was really out there by herself. Today, the case would be handled in a much different way."

As in the vast majority of cases involving accusations of sexual violence, there was no clear resolution. A verdict was not rendered. After months of having her name dragged through the mud, the accuser said she wouldn't testify a week before the trial was to begin. Charges were dropped.

But she did win this apology: "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," he said in a statement read in court.

"The only two people who do know what happened were the two people who were in that room," said Eckert, my reporter friend. "But the best case that can be made for Kobe is that he had sex with a front desk clerk he'd known for less than half an hour while his wife and daughter were sitting at home. If she is to be believed, he raped her."

Bryant later settled a civil lawsuit with the woman for an undisclosed amount and bought his wife a $4 million ring to say he's sorry. It almost sounds like something out of the Harvey Weinstein playbook: dole out hush money and make it go away.

I've written about being sexually assaulted when I was 12 by a worker on my family's farm. It's an experience that has left lasting scars. I identify with the accuser in this case. And I have been thinking of her this week. What's it like to see a man you accused of rape lionized?

"No one wants to hear that their hero did a bad thing," said Polly Poskin, past executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "People have chosen to forget that this is someone who may have destroyed a person's life. We don't want to see flaws in our heroes."

Scott Reeder is a veteran Statehouse journalist and freelance reporter. Contact him at

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