Grief is ugly and embarrassing, especially the kind of day-ruining grief that follows the untimely death of a widely beloved celebrity, those virtual strangers who feel anything but. The death of basketball giant Kobe Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles along with his daughter and seven others, has draped a cape of grief over the world at large, with vigils popping up from Los Angeles to New York, and memes memorializing Bryant making the rounds as far-reaching as Beijing.
But Kobe’s legacy is not just that of a masterful basketball player, Oscar winner, loving father, and a charitable man. It is not a gotcha to acknowledge that Kobe Bryant is also a man who was accused of rape in June of 2003, and that though the charges were dropped, the sudden end of the narrative was disquieting. In the hours following Bryant’s death, Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez decided to bring up this fact by linking to a 2016 Daily Beast article titled, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” She was subsequently suspended by the Washington Post.
Of course, Sonmez’s tweet clearly wasn’t timed to comfort aggrieved fans, nor was it a referendum on Bryant’s character. Sonmez just posted the link without additional commentary—no chiding of Bryant’s fans or characterizing those grieving as rape apologists, both Twitter takes you can find with little effort. Sonmez merely posted a link full of legal information. The reaction, as Sonmez later tweeted, was a torrent of abuse: “To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story - which was written 3+ years ago, and not by me.” She added, “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling.”
Sonmez also tweeted the following:
“That folks are responding with rage and threats toward me (someone who didn’t even write the piece but found it well-reported) speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.”
“As an addendum: Hard to see what’s accomplished by messages such as these. If your response to a news article is to resort to harassment and intimidation of journalists, you might want to consider that your behavior says more about you than the person you’re targeting.”
The aforementioned tweets are now deleted.
Tracy Grant, the managing editor of the Washington Post, released a statement confirming that Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while the Post reviews “whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy. She added, “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”
But the abrupt suspension made it appear as if it’s against the Washington Post’s social media policy to make people uncomfortable. And despite chatter about the Post’s suspension potentially stemming from Sonmez posting screenshots of her death threats—which included the names of her trolls—the statement still reads as punishment for daring to acknowledge the less savory aspects of Bryant’s story so soon.
It’s hard to tell the truth, especially when it diverts from the story we want to hear. But Sonmez isn’t in the business of simply telling nice stories; no journalist is. Considering the fact that Sonmez is apparently a survivor of sexual assault herself—and that she was bombarded by countless people actively undermining the severity of sexual assault accusations in their grieving for Bryant—the Post’s actions are especially egregious. They should have been protecting their writer, regardless of the timing of her tweet, rather than penalizing her.
The Daily Beast article Sonmez linked to was a deep dive into the allegations made by a 19-year-old Colorado hotel employee against then 24-year-old Bryant. In July 2003, Bryant was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment and faced a potential life sentence. He bought his wife, Vanessa, a $4 million 8-carat purple diamond ring as an apology, just one week after giving a tearful press conference, confessing to cheating on his wife with the accuser, but vehemently denying sexual assault. But the case never made it to trial. In September 2004, the case was dismissed because Bryant’s accuser would not testify. Instead, she filed a separate civil suit and dropped the sexual assault charge under one condition: Bryant had to issue an apology.
An apology letter was read by Bryant’s lawyer in court and included the following statement: “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. 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.”
This came off as a non-apology. Sure, he acknowledged how she felt, but it still read as if her interpretation of the night diverted from reality—namely, his experience. But over 15 years later, the allegations are just a blip in Bryant’s legacy: His career bounced back, his family grew, and he retired from the NBA in 2016 with several championship rings and Olympic gold medals under his belt.
The common refrain from those trying to provide balance and sensitivity to the news about Bryant’s death is that Bryant’s legacy is complicated. If it sounds trite, that’s because it is. But that doesn’t make it untrue. When the news broke, I was at the home of my friend and her boyfriend. We’re all Los Angeles ex-pats living in New York City, and we were preteens at the height of Laker-mania, the back-to-back-to-back championships from 2000 to 2002. When much of the country donned American flags on their car antennas in the post 9/11 milieu, Los Angeles was awash for years with joyous yellow-and-purple Lakers flags, even when the Lakers started to decline as the aughts dragged on. My parents are basketball fans, and hearing my father mutter about Bryant’s arrogance but always (always) laud his talent on the court will forever be ingrained in my recollections of him. I reflect on those moments with care, but not with blinders. Those moments don’t exclude newsreel snippets about Bryant and a Colorado spa.
Everyone responds differently to death, even the deaths of people who have done repulsive things. And even those who do not care an iota for Bryant are able to mourn the death of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who was in no way complicit in Bryant’s alleged transgressions and had nothing but a full life ahead of her. Or to grieve for the others who died—mothers and fathers and their daughters, gone in a haze of fog and smoke. The circumstances surrounding the helicopter crash are horrific enough, but the collective morbidity of scrolling Twitter timelines, guiltily refreshing TMZ, and watching ghoulish clips of cameras shoved in the faces of grieving basketball players forced to abide by the NBA’s unyielding schedule has been overwhelming. Death of public figures compels us to call our loved ones, dwell on life’s fragility, swear off helicopters and small planes and hard drugs. The fall-out can even become less about the figure who died and more about ourselves and our relationships with mortality.
People who work at news outlets are going through these same motions, but they have a responsibility to tell the truth. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes—especially when it diverts from the legacy we want from a celebrity; especially one who died tragically and young, one who a city revered, one who his daughters loved and who he loved in return, one who fellow athletes looked up to. But someone has to do it, and while it should be done with care, it must be done. The fact that it cannot be done without death threats as a result speaks volumes, but none louder than when a publication that prides itself on defending the truth acts complicit in that violence.