The nation was stunned when the news was released on January 26th that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. The basketball star’s tragic death and remarkable career quickly became the center of conversation as news outlets published obituaries praising his legacy and as fans wrote emotional social media posts paying tribute to the influence Kobe had on their lives . However, Kobe’s death also revived a conversation about how we should approach people with complicated legacies. In 2003, a 19-year old woman accused Kobe of raping her in a hotel room. He was arrested and brought to trial, but the judge dismissed the case after the accuser declined to testify . While many honor Kobe’s accomplishments and example, others view him with feelings of disgust and mistrust. To a certain extent, the question of Kobe’s legacy is similar to that of other polarizing historical figures’ legacies—questions about whether we should remember George Washington as a Founding Father or a slave owner, or whether we should remember Michael Jackson’s outstanding musical career or his history as a child molester.
There are at least three ways to approach complicated legacies. First, there is the “purist” approach, which says that anyone who did something evil should not be considered worthy of honor or praise. One writer and activist tweeted on the day of Kobe’s death, “I refuse to stop reminding people that rapists are rapists” . This approach does the injustice of simplifying people down to their worst moment. Kobe raped someone, but he also evolved and learned after the experience. In a statement about a year later he apologized and acknowledged the young woman’s experience. He stated that he understood that she did not consent to their encounter. He went on to use his platform to become a prominent supporter of women’s sports and women athletes, including his own daughters . The purist approach also yields, no surprise, a very slim list of real heroes. If all imperfect people are disqualified from heroship, the only figure truly worthy of legacy is Jesus Christ.
On the other end of the spectrum, the “idealist” approach focuses on someone’s best moments and contributions, largely ignoring the bad. Lawyer and writer Jill Filipovic criticized news outlets like the New York Times and the LA Times for including minimal to no coverage on the Kobe rape case in the immediate aftermath of his death . Idealism falls short for the same major reason that purism does; it fails to recognize that people are complicated and contradictory and cannot be judged by a highlight reel of their actions. Not only would this approach insult those who have been directly or indirectly harmed by Kobe’s actions, but it would also serve to silence women by perpetuating harmful narratives about the credibility of sexual assault allegations. One person interviewed by the LA Times says, “Survivors need to make sure our stories are not erased again and again to lift up powerful men’s legacies” .
The last approach seems to occupy the middle ground between the first two. The “pragmatic” approach attempts to weigh the good and the bad in someone’s legacy before deciding how to remember them. The major flaw to using this method as a general rule is that there is no objective way to compare someone’s good actions with his or her bad actions. They’re apples and oranges. Who’s to say whether the atrocity of owning slaves outweighs the enormous contributions that George Washington made on the founding of this country? How can anyone judge whether Kobe’s championing of women in sports and his inspiring of millions of young basketball fans is enough to outweigh the grave mistake he made in 2003?
Most legacies are complicated. We must evaluate each situation separately and leave room for nuance. But more than this, we must recognize that these evaluations are inherently subjective in nature. That subjectivity means that there’s really no right way to remember someone. We are often quick to demonize people who think differently from us. We need to demand respect for those who are survivors of sexual assault as well as for those who are hurting after Kobe’s death, but that demand should not come in the form of telling others how to remember him. As one grieving fan who is a survivor himself put it: “I won’t be mad at anyone who doesn’t want to engage with this. This is really hard and Lord knows I’m not prepared for it either. But I’m just asking for a little compassion. I’m asking for a little patience and a little kindness. Kobe’s death is hitting me hard and it doesn’t mean I don’t care about survivors” . As we each make our individual decisions about how or if we will honor Kobe’s legacy, let us make an effort to view other people’s approaches with compassion, patience, and kindness.
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