On Sunday, it was clear that the Academy Awards congratulated itself on highlighting the cases of sexual harassment that are rampant in Hollywood.
Disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein was the butt of host Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes, and celebrities such as Casey Affleck and James Franco, who have faced their own harassment allegations, chose to skip the ceremony.
Then former NBA star Kobe Bryant — who was accused of raping a woman in 2003 — won an Oscar.
Bryant’s nomination and win reflects an uncomfortable reality that pollutes the professional spaces that the #MeToo movement has tried to permeate: Much of the activism and progress in the movement rests on the optics of change, rather than demanding fundamental shifts in behavior and accountability of those who abuse their power.
On June 31, 2003, a 19-year-old woman who worked at The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Eagle, Colorado, reported that Bryant had sexually assaulted her the previous night in his hotel room. Despite originally denying the incident, after being presented with medical evidence of semen and abrasions found on the victim, he admitted to having sex. Bryant was then arrested and charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment.
While the criminal case was ultimately dismissed because the woman refused to testify in trial, it is hardly unsurprising as to why she chose to remain silent after Bryant’s defense strategy depicted a promiscuous, immature girl and after private information such as her medical and sexual history were published.
Although Bryant wasn’t found legally guilty, his actions cannot be held as exonerated. After Bryant and the victim chose to pursue an undisclosed civil case, Bryant’s attorney released a statement from the basketball star.
“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.”
While expressing remorse, there is a glaring issue with this statement: You can’t mistakenly rape someone. Ignoring a woman’s choice to have sex is rape, and the lack of an explicit “no” does not excuse Bryant’s violence or abuse of power.
Does Bryant’s lack of legal accountability release him from the cultural and social consequences of his actions? Apparently.
His life, career and reputation recovered. He bought his wife a $4 million ring. In 2005, Nike began advertising with him again after initially dropping their partnership. He finished his NBA career in 2016 as a five-time NBA champion and an 18-time All-Star, as well as coming in third on the all-time scoring list.
When he announced his retirement plans in 2015, Bryant wrote a poem in the Players’ Tribune titled “Dear Basketball.” The poem, self-described by Bryant as “the emotional journey of having a dream” and “the realization that you have wake up from that dream and move on to another,” was animated by Disney animator Glen Keane and scored by John Williams.
This brings us to this past Sunday where we — yet again — must answer an impossible question: How does one reconcile Bryant’s artistic and athletic achievements with his problematic history?
I think the answer lies in two options.
Option No. 1: Bryant can keep his Oscar, and we can decide it is acceptable to appreciate the artistic achievements without supporting the individual. This option keeps the present norm and even defends previous Oscar celebrations of other problematic individuals.
Option No. 2: Rewrite the norms that separate achievement from the award winner. The previous separation has fostered abuse, and I’ll even go further to say that this is the heart of the #MeToo movement: to define behavior as unacceptable and to impose social and cultural consequences for accountability.
Option No. 2 is uncomfortable. Where does the line of acceptable behavior get drawn, and who gets to draw it? Does it condemn the idea of redemption for past misdeeds? We’re not all going to come to the same conclusions, but it’s important to force ceremonies such as the Oscars into these difficult conversations that will inch toward progress.
In his acceptance speech, Bryant took a swipe at Fox News host Laura Ingraham, saying that he was glad he did “a little bit more than” shutting up and dribbling. And I’m glad he did. I just have a note for him:
It’s important that you don’t just “shut up and dribble” and that you use your voice for positive impact. But it is also important not to rape women.