I have avoided writing about Kobe Bryant until now, and promise to do so forevermore, because I find it hard to understand how anyone, except a deeply interested party like a Laker fan, could possibly have a dog in this fight. In one corner is the superstar modern athlete, the closest thing one finds today to a Roman Emperor, except without the responsibilities or risk of assassination. Tens of thousands cheer him at mass rallies. Children adorn their clothing with his name. (Hey, where’s my “CALIGULA 44″ Starter jersey?) Like Nero, he foists his art on an unsuspecting and indifferent public. He devotes his leisure to sexual excesses at which Tiberius would have blushed.
The superstar athlete has been surrounded since early adolescence with sycophants, handlers, agents, and coaches, all imparting the single message that, so long as he performs on the field, everything else will be taken care of. Kobe was playing in the NBA at an age when most of us are staggering home, retching, from our first kegger. As with the emperors, being protected from all of the consequences of one’s decisions is a bad character factory, turning ordinary people into brutes and marginal ones into criminals. A creditable federal cell block could be assembled from the early-90s Dallas Cowboys or the current Portland Trailblazers.
The athlete, like the emperor, is bound by the law mostly in theory. Occasionally some particularly egregious offense draws hard time, but usually his well-paid shysters run rings around the local DA and he winds up getting away with murder, sometimes literally.
To disguise these facts sportswriters engage in ritual character inflation. Mean players are “fiery” or “intense.” Borderline-retarded players are “friendly” and “unpretentious.” Sociopaths are “misunderstood.” Players who have managed not to acquire a police record, like Kobe in his pre-sexual-assault days, are “role models.”
On the other hand, these barely-socialized, easily identifiable, and immensely rich young men are targets wherever they go. At bars yobs pick fights with them and file assault charges. Women throw themselves at them and file paternity suits. In the other corner of the Bryant case we have a 19-year-old girl of, shall we say, dubious judgment, whether one credits the accusations of “basketball groupie” or not. A professional athlete invites her up to his hotel room late one night. Did she think it was for Scrabble? If, let us plausibly suppose, a little voluntary foreplay ensued, is it really sexual assault when she changes her mind? If it’s always a crime when the woman says no and the man does yes, books and movies, just for starters, have an awful lot to answer for.
Of course I have no idea what really happened, and neither do you. But Kobe’s formerly pristine reputation may actually tell against him by making it more difficult for his lawyers to slander his accuser. Even most beauty queens and American Idol contestants understand that a midnight tête-à-tête with Mike Tyson is a poor idea. But Kobe — he seems harmless, and he looks so cute in his television ads! Ladies, male professional athletes are testosterone-generating machines of frightening efficiency: proceed at your own risk. That’s not much of a lesson, I grant, but this isn’t much of a morality tale.
(Update: George Wallace comments.)