OP-ED: Yes, we have to talk about the Kobe Bryant rape case

Alexandra Birnbaum
New York Daily News (TNS)

In conversation yesterday, I was made aware of a joke, originally from the television show “Family Guy,” which has apparently made its way around locker rooms. Let’s say one friend repeatedly says “no,” to going out with another friend. The other friend might say: “It’s like having sex with Kobe Bryant; you can kick and scream all you want, but it’s gonna happen.”

I had a visceral and deeply negative reaction to this “joke” about rape. At the same time, I was glad to be made aware of it. In the era of #MeToo, when we claim to be enlightened about rape culture, it would seem we are still trying to protect those who don’t need protection. Earlier this week, a major media organization silenced someone who spoke up about a horror because, it seems, they objected to her speaking ill of the dead.

The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant celebrates his 3-pointer against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second quarter at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter for the Washington Post, was vilified online for tweeting about the rape case against Kobe Bryant. Subsequently, she was placed on administrative duty by the newspaper (which has released a statement saying Sonmez is under investigation for possibly violating their newsroom’s social media policy).

In case you forgot the details of the case: In 2003, Bryant’s victim, an employee at a Colorado resort, said she consented to kiss him but not to go further. He went further. She said he choked her during much of the assault. She told police, “Every time I said ‘no,’ he tightened his hold around me.”

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I do not know Sonmez, but perhaps she, like me, was upset by seeing a million posts heralding Bryant as a superhero. Sonmez has since deleted the tweets and written: “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure (is) beloved and that totality upsetting.”

She is 100% correct. And the fact that she has been silenced should alarm you.

It reminds me of the week of mourning that came after Ronald Reagan’s death. For some, it seemed blasphemous to remember him as anything but a saint. But we do not need to forget how the president stifled scientific research or how he let the AIDS epidemic grow out of control; that’s as much a part of his legacy as anything else. If I noted his failings in the wake of his death, does that mean I did not feel for his family? That it didn’t tug at my heartstrings when his wife Nancy cried over his casket? No. I felt that.

Jaysin Jefferson of the York Bomb Squad walks along the Penn Street Art Bridge while painting a tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, Wednesday, January 29, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

After the criminal charges against Bryant were dropped in 2004, he, as part of the settlement of a 2005 civil suit, issued a public 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.”

So perhaps, just perhaps, he learned something. Which is more than I can say for each and every person attacking Sonmez for telling the truth.

Is the death of Bryant and his daughter a terrible tragedy? Undoubtedly. Nine people died, and in a horrific manner at that. Nine lights have been extinguished. Families are grieving unbearable pain. I feel for all of them.

But we cannot ignore what happened to that victim back in 2003. I bet she’s having a hard time right now, too.

— Alexandra Birnbaum is a New York City-based writer and photographer.