Hey guys, it’s Morgan. Not gonna lie, Week 9 came and went and I still forgot to update my fantasy lineups last Thursday. Headspace: Steph Curry at the three-point line. Nah, Steph Curry at half court! If you live on the East Coast and are mad about West Coast Time Zones, this is what GIFs are made for.
Here in Chicago, the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, who was accused of sexual assault several months ago, has been in the news since the summer. The latest: the 21-year-old who had originally pressed charges dropped them. As I’ve casually followed this story and observed the media and fan reacting to the woman who initially claimed Kane raped her, I felt it’d be a good time to circle back to my complicated thoughts on the issue.
I was a 13-year-old girl when a 19-year-old woman accused 24-year-old Kobe Bryant of raping her.
Fresh off a 2002 San Francisco Giants World Series run, I had embraced all manner of professional sports. Apathetic to the chronically mediocre Golden State, I decided to root for the now-loaded Lakers, who had just added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Kobe and Shaq duo. Securing a long-elusive ring for a prolific forward and point guard: a foregone conclusion.
I had little second-guessing about my decision to ride the bandwagon for the soon-to-be 2004 NBA Champions. But I felt uneasy about rooting for a team whose (second?) best player could have been responsible for the single most traumatic event in a woman’s life. A woman who was only six years older than me.
Truth be told, despite this inner conflict about being a brash Lakers “fan,” I had little, if any sympathy for the 19-year-old hotel employee. This wasn’t me being anti-woman, I reasoned. After all, I was irritated at Kobe for cheating on his wife, a fact which he readily confessed. But what did he have to gain from committing a crime that jeopardized Los Angeles’ championship run? It felt logical and comforting to believe the media’s suggestions that money (and perhaps fame?) drove her accusations. I let myself hope that he’d been the victim of some opportunistic scheme by a slutty teenager. When he’d fly across the country from Colorado to compete in a playoff game that night, I remember the tone of radio sports update announcers suggesting admiration at Bryant’s ability to overcome “adversity.” From my kitchen table, I cheered.
The criminal case was eventually dropped after the accuser refused to testify. Bryant settled a later civil suit out of court. The Lakers lost in five games to the Detroit Pistons.
Bryant’s life went on. He stayed married. He signed a seven-year, $136 million contract a year after the allegations. Nike, Spalding, and Coca-Cola all came back as sponsors. In 2008, he was named MVP and was the Finals' Most Valuable Player in 2009 and 2010.
Hardly anyone brings up the sex assault charges anymore.
When I conceived of this essay, I believed that my coldness to Bryant’s accuser stemmed from her anonymity. I never learned her name. I never heard her voice. I never saw her face. Laws designed explicitly to protect her also kept public opinion from offering bits of sorrow, scraps of compassion.
But it’s complicated. Last week, photos circulated on the internet of a woman pulling up the sleeve of her shirt to reveal red and orange welts on her upper back. The photos were of Nicole Holder. Sports media first published her name in 2014 and pictures from her social media accounts in 2015.
Janay Rice attended a press conference alongside her husband, saying she deeply regretted the role she played in that incident.
But few seemed moved by reports of violence against Rice and Holder until visual evidence of the harm done against them appeared.
From the time that we first enroll (or enroll our children) in youth sports, we’re conditioned to believe that playing and competing in sports builds character. They’re not just activities we do to tone our bodies—they also increase our work ethic, build perseverance, and foster teamwork. Playing sports develops more than muscles and agility. It shapes leaders. Sports make boys, men. (I have never heard anyone say that sports make girls, women.)
By the time athletes begin competing at the college and professional level, we are inured to view them as heroes. It’s precisely this myth that made it difficult for me to muster sympathy for Kobe Bryant’s accuser. To consider her claims meant that I had to come to terms with Bryant’s fallibility. Bryant’s role in winning the Lakers’ three championship rings had never made him a hero. Just because he achieved several great performances on the court hours after flying in from his Colorado hearings, didn’t make him more of one. Bryant could be a sports legend and Bryant could care less about women.
Every woman deserves to be seen by me as human. (After all, her humanity doesn’t rest on whether the allegations are true or if they’re later shown to be fraudulent.) But a good argument could be made that the grainy elevator tape didn’t help the public see the assaulted Rice as a parent or daughter. Seeing an image of Holder’s bruised shoulder did not remind me that she and I started college in the same year.
Instead, I looked at the images and saw violence. I saw that the hands and bodies used to excel in America’s most popular sport had been used to batter a woman. I saw a rupture in the narrative that the physically gifted are morally invincible.
Earlier this summer, when commentators were speculating whether or not Ray Rice would return to professional football, The New Republic’s Jamil Smith wrote about a domestic abuse prevention group “telling a domestic abuser that his return to a pro football field is the final step in his public redemption.”
“And what message does that send?” wrote Smith. “It says that real redemption is truly found on the public stage, on a football field.”
So what does it say when we applaud?
Let’s keep talking. As mentioned last week, former Astro Lance Berkman made headlines after he campaigned against Houston’s LGBT-discrimination ordinance. The Big Puma’s admonitions against allowing “troubled men [read: transgendered women] to enter women's public bathrooms” did not endear him to the LGBT community. (Nor to us.) NBC’s Craig Calcaterra—who is not shy about his progressive convictions—had low expectations when Berkman reached out to discuss his comments. Despite the ideological disagreements, the two found themselves having an amenable conversation around the issues.
“While Berkman and I are pretty much diametrically opposed on these issues, I must admit that, in an age where “flip-flopping” is deemed a cardinal political sin, foolish consistency somehow deemed a political virtue, and tortured reasoning in the service of making one’s views seem to be in total lockstep with both reason and righteousness even when passion rules us more than we realize, it’s refreshing to hear someone not too hung up on and that and just believe what he believes.
Before the call ended, Berkman and I discussed one last thing in that vein and, for all about which we disagree, found some agreement. The topic: the perils of stereotyping one’s political opposition.”
How about that?
Bleaching the Bench. Right on the heels of the ongoing discussion about the lack of racial minorities in MLB’s managerial ranks, Howard Beck reports on the decline in black NBA coaches. His analysis builds upon Tom Ziller’s conclusion: while black coaches generally need prior coaching experience to land a head coaching gig, white coaches don’t.
What the F(lip). We got really excited when Jose Bautista flipped the bird bat on baseball’s respectability politics on Monday, defending his epic home run celebration as an extension of his love for the game at Derek Jeter’s The Player’s Tribune. Hopefully a player getting shine from Jeter’s magazine—lest we remind you, Jeter is a patron saint for “playing the game the right way”—might signal a change in American baseball’s stodgy culture.
Of course, that excitement didn’t even make it through the morning, when we learned that highly touted Korean import Park Byung-Ho was giving up bat flips in preparation to join the Minnesota Twins.
This is what Western Civ has sacrificed on the altar of “respecting the game.”