Guest Columnist

Who gets to decide Kobe Bryant's legacy?

Former NBA player Kobe Bryant in October 2018. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys
Former NBA player Kobe Bryant in October 2018. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys

The past few weeks have given us ample opportunities to reflect on legacies. From the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination crisscrossing our state determined to cement their legacy in our hearts and minds, to the most recent example, the rush to determine the legacy of NBA star Kobe Bryant, who was killed this past weekend in a helicopter crash in California.

The legions of Kobe fans have been quick to tout his basketball and business skills; ample sign, they say, of a heroic legacy that will endure for generations.

But what makes a legacy? And who gets to decide it?

Monica Lewinsky pointedly admonished journalists on Twitter last week. After nearly 20 years, she pointed out that the scandal involving Bill Clinton still is commonly cited as “The Lewinsky Affair,” rather than a host of other descriptors that would be equally apt, like The Starr Inquiry or, simply, The Clinton Impeachment. That it’s taken Lewinsky two decades to begin to reframe her role in it — in a way that is less singularly focused on the involvement of only one person — is a testament to how our country views legacy.

Pro tip: legacy is often viewed through a male-dominant lens.

Which brings me back to Kobe and the challenge of determining his legacy, so fresh a challenge following a tragic death.

Since his untimely death we have been bombarded with video of athletic artistry incomparable except at the highest levels of sport. We learned of Kobe’s newfound business pursuits. His trademark determination and grit. His Oscar win. And we were regaled with beautiful images of his family, particularly his second daughter, Gianna, a budding baller with WNBA hoop dreams, who also lost her life in that tragic crash. To see her life taken so early is heart wrenching, and as I sat captivated by ESPN2, my heart ached for all involved — family and friends of those lost, as well as the millions of fans who felt they knew Kobe because of the shared basketball connection.

As I was consumed by coverage of the crash, a friend texted me in disbelief. “Am I the only one who remembers he was accused of rape?,” she asked. But she isn’t.

Journalists across the country debated how to cover that portion of Kobe’s life — the graphic rape allegation, the blood stained evidence, and the subsequent out of court settlement. The fact that many reporters did cover it is a testament to how far we’ve come in considering the totality of a person’s legacy — the good, the bad, and the questionable — ensuring that not just one area of life dictates the whole view. Yet that the rape allegations elicited only two or three sentences in most reflections shows how far we have yet to go.

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Add to that the discussion surrounding Kobe’s much-improved relationship with his four daughters in his retirement. He was focused on them. Invested. He coached their basketball teams. Took them to Lakers games. While I believe this is wonderful in and of itself, it rankled me. That we praise — and then elevate — men for being involved in their children’s lives as heroic, rather than an expectation of parenthood, is damaging to both men and women.

The minimal attention paid to Kobe’s rape allegations and the overhyped attention about his supportiveness of his daughters is inextricably connected. A powerful message is being sent: women, your stories and history are easily disposable when it is convenient to fit a narrative. Conversely, when it is suitable for others to use your presence to bolster that narrative, your stories will be glorified.

Molly Altorfer of Cedar Rapids is a communications and marketing strategist fascinated by the intersection of sports and culture.

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