Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles at the age of 41. The crash killed all nine people on board, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna and beloved college baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa. They were heading to a youth basketball game. Bryant won five NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals and was crowned an All-Star 18 times. He played for the L.A. Lakers for 20 years before retiring in 2016. Gianna Bryant reportedly hoped to one day play for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. Tributes continue to pour in on social media from fans, athletes and other public figures. But some are also calling on the media and supporters not to forget a sexual assault allegation from early in his career. We speak with Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and host of the Edge of Sports podcast, and Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles at the age of 41. The crash killed all nine people on board, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, known as Gigi, and the beloved college baseball coach John Altobelli and his wife Keri and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa. They were all heading to a youth basketball game.
Bryant won five NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, was crowned an All-Star 18 times. He played for the L.A. Lakers for 20 years before retiring in 2016, also known for being an ardent supporter of women’s basketball. Gigi Bryant reportedly hoped to one day play for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
Tributes continue to pour in on social media from fans, athletes and other public figures. Musicians Alicia Keys and Lizzo remembered Kobe Bryant at the Grammys in Los Angeles Sunday night. Thousands gathered outside the Staples overnight — the Staples Center — to mourn his passing.
But some are also calling on the media and supporters not to forget the sexual assault allegation from early in his career. In 2003, a 19-year-old woman who worked at a hotel where Kobe Bryant was staying in Colorado accused him of rape. Bryant denied the charge, saying they had a consensual encounter. Authorities said the woman had injuries, quote, “not consistent with consensual sex.” [Her] blood was also found on his T-shirt. The case was dropped after the woman decided not to testify and a civil suit was settled out of court. In a statement, Bryant said in a 2004 quote, “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,” unquote. The sexual assault allegations resurfaced in 2018 when Kobe Bryant’s film Dear Basketball won an Oscar for Best Animated Short at the 2018 Academy Awards.
Well, we’re joined now by two people: Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine, also host of the Edge of Sports podcast, and Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, among the co-founders of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dave, why don’t you start off by just talking about who Kobe Bryant was?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, no, absolutely. Hello, Amy. I think what people need to remember, particularly Democracy Now! listeners who don’t quite understand the scale of grief and outpouring that’s taking place right now, is that Kobe Bryant first became part of the public consciousness at age 17 as a high school senior. And he dies yesterday at the age of 41. That means for over half of Kobe Bryant’s life, he’s part of the public eye. And I think there’s this tremendous association that people had with him and with his career. I mean, Kobe Bryant was the kind of player that people felt passionate about. Some people loved him, some people hated him. Some people loved and hated him for things that happened on the court, some people for what happened off the court.
But over the course of his career, he not only excelled as a player — you know, he was an 18-time All-Star, for goodness’ sakes — but he was also very much a global athlete. His name was Kobe because his father was a basketball player, named Joe Bryant, who traveled the world, and Kobe was named after Kobe, Japan, where Kobe played. Kobe grew up in Italy. He spoke fluent Italian. He spoke Spanish. There’s a basketball player named Luka Doncic, and Kobe would speak to him in Slovenian. So, Kobe had this global appeal, which has led to this outpouring of grief that we see today.
And for a lot of folks, you know, people just thought the second act of Kobe’s life was just getting started at age 41. And I think when you factor in the death of Gigi, as well, who had aspirations to be a basketball player in her own right, it’s almost like this future that people saw for Kobe was just erased in the blink of an eye. And I think that’s what people are suffering with right now.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk more about his daughter, Gigi, who was also beloved and really got him into women’s basketball? He said he wasn’t even watching it, after he finished in 2016, after he retired.
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, he wasn’t watching any basketball after he finished. He wanted to be the sort of athlete who didn’t hang around the game, but instead moved on to other challenges and other jobs. He wanted to be a big creative producer out in Hollywood and a mogul, really. And a lot of players were looking to Kobe to blaze that path as a mogul.
But then his daughter became a basketball obsessive, not unlike her dad, you know, obsessive in the best possible sense, just an absolute lover of the game. And that brought Kobe back into the game, particularly into the sphere of women’s basketball. He became a girls’ basketball coach. He became someone who, just this past last month, made news where he talked about that there are women who should be playing in the NBA right now and that he was going to be someone who took it upon himself to champion the WNBA going forward. And Gigi was part of those dreams. There’s this amazing clip that’s going around of Kobe on a talk show and about someone coming up to Kobe and Gigi and saying to him, “Oh, it would be amazing if you had a son, because your son could carry on your legacy,” and Gigi actually stepping in and interrupting the conversation and saying, “No, no. I got this.”
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Gigi died in that helicopter crash, as well. Can you talk now about what happened in 2003, Dave Zirin? What happened in Colorado?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I’ll be frank with you. First and foremost, it’s difficult to discuss, because you want to give people space to mourn right now. And I feel like there is going to be time to discuss all of this, but I also understand that this is part of Kobe’s legacy and it does need to be discussed. In 2003, Kobe was charged with sexual assault. In 2005, the charges were dropped when his accuser did not testify. And Kobe’s lawyers absolutely engaged in a scorched-earth campaign against his accuser, that was so intense they actually changed the rape shield laws in Colorado, because they were so vicious towards her.
Now, part of the settlement that — the part of the deal that Kobe, in terms of the civil suit, of writing a very large check to make the charges go away, involved Kobe writing out an apology, that was read in court, where Kobe acknowledged that he did not think that his accuser had offered consent in their encounter. And I have to tell you, like, speaking with — back then, in 2005, that hadn’t really been seen before. I mean, now, I think, it probably doesn’t — I don’t know how we would look at it in 2020, in our era today. But in 2005, offering that statement, where he spoke about the issue of consent, I know that for a lot of organizations that work in restorative justice circles, they’ve used that statement as a way to speak about the importance of understanding consent and the importance of fighting sexual assault and rape culture.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I’d like to bring in Fatima Goss Graves here, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, going back to that 2003 moment in Colorado, where the woman, authorities said, had injuries not consistent with consensual sex, her blood found on Kobe Bryant’s T-shirt, and then that statement in the settlement that he made in 2004 — “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.” If you can share your thoughts today on Kobe Bryant’s legacy?
FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: Well, I should begin by offering my condolence to his family, to his friends. I was in college in L.A. when he first came to the Lakers. And it all seems too soon. And at the same time, we have to think about how it is that we talk about legacies. It’s often too easy to erase the bad parts of legacy. But in this moment, it’s especially important that we contextualize everything about his legacy, on and off the court, including the sexual violence, where the page was probably turned too soon. I hope, 15 years later, when we think about this instance, we can think about it a little bit differently. We can think about how the survivors are feeling in this moment, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, your final thoughts?
DAVE ZIRIN: [inaudible] so beautifully and eloquently. I have little to add, except that I think it’s very important that we keep in mind today and hold to our hearts the Bryant family, the Altobelli family, survivors and everybody who is processing this grief in their own way. It’s important that we not police people’s grief. It’s important instead that we listen to what everybody has to say, because this is something that’s affecting people in a way that’s far broader than basketball.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. And, Fatima Goss Graves, you’re going to be staying with us as we talk about what’s happened in this last week with the first sitting president in history to attend and address an anti-choice march, the major so-called March for Life in Washington. Dave Zirin, thanks for being with us, sports editor for The Nation magazine. Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center. Stay with us.