What Is the 'Right' Way to Memorialize Someone?
As soon as news broke of Kobe Bryant’s death, the Internet began fighting over whether he was “good” or “bad.” We could all do better.
Kobe Bryant allegedly raped someone. He was a legendary basketball player. Both of these things can be true. Bryant died tragically in a helicopter accident Sunday which also claimed the life of his young daughter, and reactions immediately poured in, divided between "we lost a hero" and "never forget what he did." The responses to those initial reactions came almost as quickly, the Internet eating itself as each side policed what was the “right” way to refer to such a man on the event of his passing. The preferred euphemism that has emerged among more formal media is that he leaves behind a “complicated legacy.” I saw this further sanitized by an acquaintance on Facebook who wrote that Bryant was "not always a role model off the court."
A lesson many chose to call out after Bryant’s death is that tomorrow is never promised to any of us. I would add that death is, in fact, a promise for all of us. And as the numbers of such ‘complicated’ men tick up in the years following #MeToo, it behooves us to work out the nuance in how they will be remembered. Two things can be true: A person can have done good and bad. As Charles P. Pierce wrote in an obituary for Bryant in Esquire, “it is 2020 now, and Jeffrey Epstein is dead and Harvey Weinstein is in a New York courtroom, and erasing a female victim is no longer a viable moral and ethical strategy.”
At Penn State University, my alma mater, a statue of disgraced football coach Joe Paterno was removed from the stadium in 2012 following the horrendous reports of child sexual abuse that occurred there, to which many believe he turned a blind eye for years. Ardent fans protested that Paterno was an icon of football at an iconic football school; others celebrated the decision — he would forever be remembered as the coach who allowed children to be hurt. One mile away, the library at the center of campus still bears the Paterno name, after he and his wife donated millions to fund academic endeavors over their decades in the Happy Valley. Abuse bad; education good. Both of these things are true. It’s complicated.
Bryant was a sports hero. A high achieving athletic role model many looked up to. He was a husband and, by all accounts, a doting father to his four daughters. It is possible to know all of that and not forget what he did in 2003. It is possible to make space for all of these truths without appointing oneself judge and jury on a posthumous sentence he must now serve. It is possible to say “Kobe Bryant broke records, inspired young athletes, changed the game, had a family to which he was lovingly devoted, and also was the defendant in a rape trial that was dropped, a civil case that was settled out of court and never spoke of again.” His accuser exists. She is not some figment of the past we should sanitize out of a messy story in order for the Hall of Fame plaques to remain clean. They should remain, but include the whole truth.
Perhaps many people’s urgency to set the record straight on Sunday was based in a feeling that the institutions that hold up such men never seem to make space for their “complicated legacies.” After Bryant’s charges were dropped (after he issued an apology through his lawyer), he lost endorsements from McDonald's and Coca-Cola, but he put on his Lakers jersey again and that was that. Penn State has a library, but not a statue. Harvey Weinstein has yet to be stripped of his Academy Awards. When he dies he will probably be included in the Oscars in memoriam.
When these institutions lean into one version of the men they memorialize it encourages a “both sides” conversation that forces others to go hard in the opposite direction. And Sunday, so many got it wrong. One Instagram account usually dedicated to uplifting motherhood memes posted a note to all “toxic masculine men” that their daughters are their “karmic bonds,” and any man who abuses women will have a daughter who “reaps what he has sowed.” Kobe Bryant was named in the caption. To say the death of a child is a fair price to pay — no matter what her father has done — is grotesque. It adds nothing to the conversation and is borderline negligent to the three surviving children, and their mother.
The best we can do is tread carefully, and try to respectfully acknowledge what we know to be true. As recently as March 2018 social media was divided over how to treat Bryant in the public eye, as his Oscar win brought the 2003 rape case into the #MeToo era. It may have been that cultural consciousness Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez thought she was entering when she shared a link, immediately after news of the tragedy, about the allegations against him. Instead, she reportedly received thousands of death threats and then was put on administrative leave for revealing the identities of those who had threatened her. Many jumped in to say it was “too soon” to go there.
The problem is that women are fighting so hard for these stories to be handled correctly the first time; to not watch them be swept aside for decades and find themselves hoping for a footnote in an obituary instead. There are still too many men whose stories haven’t been swept back out yet. That means it's inevitably going to happen when they die, and for heartbroken fans that's always going to feel 'too soon.'
“Don’t sad shame me for mourning Kobe,” a colleague of mine joked — and she’s not alone. For many millennials Kobe was a role model on and off the court. He had shed is ‘bad boy’ image of the ‘90s and early aughts (his supposed beef with Shaq; his using an anti-gay slur on the court) to become a family man. He had very recently been brainstorming a project with the actress Olivia Munn to help kids be less afraid of death, E! reports. He was outspoken about his daughter Gianna’s future in basketball, loving to recount an anecdote where she’d tell fans he didn’t need a son to carry on the Bryant legacy; that she’d do it in the WNBA. For fans who grew up watching this rehabbed version of him, adding an asterisk to the Kobe Bryant story is like muting Michael Jackson after a lifetime of having simply known him as the GOAT. It’s sad. It’s hard to look back at so many good things and take them together with badness. But, at the end of the day, it isn’t that complicated. And it’s something we’re going to have to get used to.