'I have mixed feelings': How should we be talking about Kobe Bryant's legacy?

When the shocking news that Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, messages of grief and tributes to the basketball legend flooded social media and news broadcasts.

Despite the widespread upset following the sudden death of Bryant, not everyone processed the news the same way.

For some, he will always be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time, who so many fans and a generation of basketball players looked up to for years. But others have been processing their feelings for someone who was charged with sexual assault back in 2003. It’s clear that the balance in the conversations about his legacy has been difficult to navigate.

Kobe Bryant’s history

Kobe Bryant, also the son of a professional basketball player, Joe Bryant, was clearly an exceptional athlete from a young age. At 19 he was the youngest starter in his first All-Star basketball game, after becoming a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Bryant went on to win five NBA championships with the Lakers and was a two-time Olympic gold medal winner with the U.S. team. Many athletes, even outside of basketball, have referred to the “Mamba Mentality,” a concept coined by Bryant related to having a competitive spirit, focusing on and mastering your sport.

When he retired in 2016, Bryant began coaching his daughter, Gianna’s, basketball team. In 2018, his partnership with a training facility in Thousand Oaks, California was announced, which was re-branded as the Mamba Sports Academy. In recent years, Bryant has been championed for his support of women’s basketball.

On Jul. 18, 2003, Bryant was charged with one count of sexual assault involving at 19-year-old. The woman claimed Bryant raped her in a hotel near Vail, Colorado, allegedly choking her and forcing her to have sex with him.

The criminal assault charges were dropped in 2004, prosecutors citing that the accuser was not willing to testify, which ended in a settlement. The details of the settlement are still unknown.

“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,” Bryant said a statement following the accusation. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

The debate online

Although Bryant’s achievements and the circumstances of his sexual assault case are both part of his history many people, including fans and journalists, have been struggling to determine the best way to communicate and remember Bryant’s legacy.

The Washington Post suspended a reporter after tweeting a story about Bryant’s 2003 assault case on the day of the helicopter crash. Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave, which has now been lifted, and was told to take the tweet down because it was "hurting this institution.”

The Washington Post’s managing editor Tracy Grant maintains that Sonmez’s tweet was “ill-timed.”

Comedian Ari Shaffir publicly stated that Bryant “died 23 years too late,” saying that he “got away with rape.”

The videos have since been deleted from his social media and the comedian has been dropped by his talent agency. Shaffir posted a statement following the backlash, saying it was “just dark comedy” and he has been posting similar videos about celebrities who have died for years as jokes.

As the controversy around Bryant, and criticism about how people are talking about him since his passing, began to ramp up. Many have been stressing the fact that it’s alright to be upset about Bryant’s death, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is supporting his actions in the rape case, while others should not be tormented for bringing up the disturbing moments of Bryant’s life.


People should be allowed to grieve Bryant openly.

“Bryant was a sports hero. A high achieving athletic role model many looked up to. He was a husband and, by all accounts, a doting father to his four daughters. It is possible to know all of that and not forget what he did in 2003. It is possible to make space for all of these truths without appointing oneself judge and jury on a posthumous sentence he must now serve.” - Laura Norkin, InStyle

“Let me be clear about something else: There is no shame in grieving anybody, no matter how flawed he is, because grief is not a choice. We can’t help who we grieve anymore than we can help who we love. Fans grieving Bryant should not be subject to scorn. But by the same token, neither should those who don’t appear to grieve him be subject to scorn.” - Emma Teitel, Toronto Star

This will continue to be a debate.

“Bryant’s life was many things to many people, and his memory will be the same. But one thing is certain: This won’t be the last time American media outlets struggle with how to memorialize someone who was both beloved and accused of something terrible. And it’s an opportunity to think about how America remembers high-profile men — and those whose lives they impacted, for good and for ill.” - Anna North, Vox

Don’t ignore his mistakes.

“But it's clear that you cannot talk about Kobe Bryant's life, his career or his legacy without talking about all of it. Ignoring the allegation, or pretending that it shouldn't be spoken about when discussing his life and his death, doesn't just do a disservice to the victim and other victims and their advocates; it arguably eradicates the pivotal event of Bryant's life and career. Kobe Bryant died an inspirational figure to many — but certainly not to all. It's not rude or uncouth — or worthy of death threats or suspensions — to talk about why.” - Will Leitch, NBC News