What does it mean to be a fan of a team containing potentially reprehensible characters? Is it incumbent upon the fans and/or the team ownership to even care about such matters? Where does the moral responsibility lie? Is there a behavioral line in the sand across which fandom can no longer exist? Does it apply to the whole team? Just that player? The organization that supports him? How does being a fan AND a woman affect this picture? How about a fan AND a woman AND an assault survivor? What does our loyalty to these teams and players say about what/whom we value in our society? Can finding out about these vile accusations after the fact affect our memory of important moments in team history, the same way it is now impossible to hear R. Kelly songs and not wince a little at the thought of his sordid sexual exploits?
As a fan of both the Lakers and Real Madrid, I have found myself pondering these issues more often than I would like to. Because investing ourselves in sports teams leads us to mythologize the best athletes, we end up believing that we have a more intimate relationship with them than we actually do. This inevitably leads to a fabricated form of familiarity, akin to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, in which we lose our ability to be truly impartial in these matters. Simply put, we feel like we know these players, as if their behavior on the court or field is somehow indicative of their virtue off of it, and it makes it difficult to accept less than flattering appraisals of their non-athletic antics.
I’m sure we all know logically that there is no straight line between on- and off-field citizenship, but these established preconceptions are hard to shake. I was a college student in a language and gender class at the time the Kobe Bryant rape allegation surfaced, and I witnessed in real time all the discourse strategies the media and his attorneys deployed to diminish the accuser’s credibility and insist on his innocence. She came to his room of her own volition; she kissed him consensually; he’s an attractive superstar so he doesn’t NEED to rape anyone. And on and on. I knew what bullshit it was to hear stories about how he was fluent in Italian, as though that had any impact on his ability to be a rapist. And how the accuser had a history of mental health issues and even suicide attempts, which somehow made her testimony less credible.
And even with all of this knowledge swimming around in my head, I was hesitant to believe that the accusation could be true. And in Kobe’s case, I will admit that it is decidedly more complex because of the history of racial violence in America. Historically, black men have been imperiled and killed due to false accusations from white women. Everyone knows (or should know) the story of Emmett Till, and how the fourteen-year-old was brutally tortured and murdered due to the accusation by Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, that he had committed the unforgivable sin of flirting with her. She has since admitted that the majority of her accusations were false, but that didn’t stop her husband and his half-brother from abducting the teenager and leaving his body so mutilated that Till’s mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral for her son sparked national outrage when people saw the condition of the boy.
Lest any of us believe we are past this sort of ugliness, note the story of Nikki Yovino of Long Island, who this August was sentenced to a year in prison after admitting she falsely accused two black football players from Sacred Heart University of rape. While she rolled her eyes through her sentencing, those two young black men were left to deal with PTSD, expulsion from college, and tens of thousands of dollars in debt due to her false accusations. I suppose we can pat ourselves on the back that no actual lynch mobs turned up this time, but it is clearly part of a long history of false allegations of sexual abuse and assault made by white women against black men.
It is this context that complicates the Kobe Bryant case, because it is impossible to extricate it from this sordid (and continuing) history. I don’t know if this was the main reason I was able to push this particular story to the back of my mind, but I do know that I continued to support him in his role as the most important Laker in a generation, albeit with plenty of reservations. I quit wearing his jerseys, buying any of his sponsored gear, calling myself explicitly a “Kobe fan”; but come game time, I was still very much a Laker fan and cheered his performances nonetheless. Does that make me complicit? A hypocrite? Or, on the flip side, a true fan because it did not deter me from rooting for my team? I honestly don’t have the answers to those questions.
The question of the evidence in the case, as well as Kobe’s own words, point to this accusation being genuine and not motivated by either racial animosity or the gold-digging impulses the young woman was accused of. In an apology written by Kobe as part of the settlement of the civil case, he admitted,
“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.”
At bare minimum, this acknowledges that the encounter occurred pretty much as the victim recounted it; the only point of contention is the way he interpreted her actions as being consistent with “consent.” If there’s anything the #MeToo movement has taught us, it’s that, in men’s minds, the lack of consent has to be forceful, repeated, and often violent in order to qualify as legitimate resistance. In the absence of a knee to the groin and a verbal attestation of “I do not consent to this,” the narrative tends to be that the woman was either asking for it or not communicating effectively enough, thus putting the onus for the assault back on her.
In terms of admissions from the accused attacker, the documents surrounding the Cristiano Ronaldo case may be even more damning. Although Ronaldo’s lawyers are now contending that these documents are fabricated, Der Spiegel based its reporting of the matter on hundreds of pages of material, including one questionnaire filled out by CR7 himself which states of the victim’s resistance, “She said no and stop several times.” Alternate “versions” of this same questionnaire exist according to Der Spiegel and it is this point of contention that his lawyers are attempting to exploit in his defense. I’m not enough of an expert on the technical or legal matters that come to bear on this, but I would hope that, even if a definitive answer cannot be found, the question of the validity of this document can be viewed within the context of the totality of the evidence, all of which points unsettlingly toward some semblance of guilt from arguably the best player in the history of my favorite club.
The first impulse when these sorts of allegations surface is to look for some explanation other than the guilt of our sports heroes. Was it a simple misunderstanding, however loaded a term that clearly now is? Is the allegation patently false, motivated by a woman of questionable morals and impure aims? The “gold-digger” refrain has already been making the rounds, as has the “attention whore” motif, both of which seem vastly out of line with the facts of this case. The reported settlement was around $375,000 – hardly a sum vast enough to justify the relentless incursions into her personal life undertaken by Ronaldo’s lawyers and henchmen in efforts to discredit her and dissuade her from pursuing justice. As for the idea, put forth by Cristiano himself, that this is a desperate bid for fame – on Instagram he branded the story “fake news” and asserted, “They want to be famous to say my name” – it hardly seems like the best way into the spotlight, a solitary woman taking on one of the largest sports figures in history, enduring all types of slander as his legal team wages war on her in an effort to clear their man. Never mind that she never broke her non-disclosure agreement for nine years, only emerging from her silence in the wake of the #MeToo moment we currently inhabit. Never mind the fact that she steadfastly refused to identify him, even in her early interactions with the police after deciding to report the rape. As the Der Spiegel article and its supporting documents make clear, she very much wanted his identity to be kept out of all the proceedings surrounding her reporting of the assault. It was only when her medical bills began piling up and the emotional and economic cost of the whole ordeal started adding up that she decided she wasn’t going to let him completely off the hook.
I wish it wasn’t the case, but when I hear these accusations surface about powerful men, particularly sports stars, my knee-jerk reaction is, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Because all of these elite level athletes have been the jocks and golden boys we all grew up with, who felt uniquely entitled to everything and met limited resistance due to their exceptional physical abilities. The ultimately sadder story that has emerged from our present moment is that this sense of entitlement extends much further than we had originally imagined. It’s not just the rich and powerful and talented who exploit their advantages at the expense of women. It’s the regular guys all around us. That jerk who won’t leave you alone on the dance floor after multiple rebuffs. The sleazy boss who uses his authority to isolate you from coworkers and make unwelcome advances. The professed “nice guy” who feels like he is owed something in exchange for his miraculous display of human decency toward a female friend. Every woman I know has had experiences with these types of men, and the fact that it seems sort of “meh” to all concerned should be a devastating realization.
I can’t pretend to know how this will all play out, but I also can’t pretend that I’m hopeful. I’m not hopeful that finding the truth will be any less painful. I’m not hopeful that the (alleged) victim will be treated any less horribly. I am distinctly not hopeful that any sort of justice will be carried out even if significant evidence of guilt exists, and one need look no further than our current political situation to see why. Because when a collective shoulder shrug has already ushered in a man carrying multiple credible assault allegations to the U.S. Supreme Court, the odds of some random chick in Las Vegas getting a fair hearing, whether in court or in the echo chamber of the media, seems distinctly unlikely. The fact that so many more people are at least willing to listen to victims should be reason for optimism, but this makes it even more crushing when they then refuse to act on what they hear. I suspect this case will follow a similar path. As a fan, I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as a woman, I know exactly where I stand. #IBelieveHer.