Photo: Christopher Polk (Getty)

Did you hear? Kobe Bryant is a body-care guru now. Partnering with a pair of business-bro whipdicks and a smattering of pro athletes, including NBA MVP James Harden, he’s launching a line of beauty products for athletes and men who want to pretend they are athletes. Here’s a link to an article about it from Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion trade publication. The article refers to Bryant as a basketball legend, a world-class athlete, a celebrity of sport, and a five-time NBA champ. Somehow it never mentions that he is also an accused rapist who avoided a criminal trial verdict by bullying his accuser into silence. Maybe they ran out of column inches. And maybe so did ESPN and Sports Illustrated and everybody else, too.

Remember that shit? The world seems to have forgotten along the way to facilitating Bryant’s total public rehabilitation. On the night of July 1, 2003, Bryant choked a 19-year-old employee of the Eagle, Colorado hotel where he was staying (hard enough to leave bruises on her neck), bent her over a chair, and drew blood during the ensuing sex act. By the end of the night, she’d told a coworker that Bryant had forced himself on her; by the end of the next day he’d been contacted by local police. During the resulting criminal investigation, Bryant did not deny the encounter; he didn’t deny choking her; he even admitted he’d never asked for her consent, claiming to have inferred it from her body language. When it was all over—that is, after Bryant’s lawyers intimidated the woman out of the courtroom by reframing the forensic evidence to suggest that she was a lying slut—he even apologized for it, more or less:

First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo.

I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. 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.

Advertisement

That this type of thing is a dismally familiar tactic in defending against rape charges makes it no less fucking cynical and evil. Kobe Bryant did this! He bullied into silence a woman who’d credibly accused him of raping her. In a society even a little bit less structurally misogynist, he would be a goddamn pariah. Hell, in that society he might only just now be coming up for parole hearings.

In this society, the NBA itself, along with just about every mainstream media outlet presented with the opportunity, rushed to facilitate his self-reinvention as a guru of professional excellence and personal actualization, a wise basketball sage, and a business mogul warmly called upon at regular intervals to issue homilies on What Greatness Requires and benedictions on the Will To Prevail of this or that up-and-coming basketball star. He can attach his name to a PR venture costumed like a journalism shop, or add his face to the star-studded lineup of pro athletes fronting a skincare brand, and it’s received not as a blight or a discredit, but as a mark of credibility. Oh wow, they got Kobe, these guys are legit. He’s shown up in at least the past two annual iterations of the NBA 2K video game—the NBA’s official e-sports partner—to provide in-game commentary to the prompts of an adoring, gushingly effusive Kevin Harlan. He produced a dreadful, skin-crawling cartoon movie explicitly geared to launder and burnish his personal myth, and it won an Oscar. When the Los Angeles Lakers added LeBron James in free agency over the summer, Stephen A. Smith invited Bryant on his ESPN Radio show to “welcome [LeBron] to the family.” Nowadays, the hottest scandal he’s associated with is the revelation that a GIF of him not flinching at a feinted Matt Barnes inbound pass isn’t nearly as cool as it once seemed.

This is shameful. It was revolting enough when the NBA gave this piece of shit a two-season soft-focus sendoff, but for him to still have clearance—from fans, from media, from the NBA itself—to act as the sitting Basketball Pope, to stand as the certifying face of business ventures, instead of wandering the fucking wilderness in disgrace and disrepute, makes me want to pull my goddamn head off. Much more importantly, it exposes as complete bullshit the Official Sport Of Woke Progressivism pose copped by the NBA and its broader community of fans and apparatchik media.

Advertisement

Let’s be clear: On a basic level, the NBA’s branding proposition is that it’s not like the other major American sports. If you find major-league baseball too stodgy or arcane, too targeted to the sensibilities of racist players and fans, the NBA is, it is always happy to remind you, right there as an alternative: a league centered on the expressiveness of black players that is in theory not pitched to white people dying of old age. Likewise if you find the NFL too violent, too militarized and militaristic, if you’re repulsed by how its owners closed ranks to expel a black player for even mildly expressing the idea that racialized police brutality excludes black people from full citizenship, if you’re grossed out by its increasingly depersonalized churn of replaceable bodies; or if you’re turned off by hockey’s fights, its toothless goons and backwards macho shit; or if the seemingly endless and endemic sexual violence against women in college sports precludes your enjoying them—there is the NBA, for you. Sophisticated, modern, and forward-looking.

This is the league that people who get queasy about the grossness of big sports can enjoy; the one whose commissioner not only doesn’t punish the players for expressions that might freak out the average Fox News viewer, but says stuff to the effect that he thinks it’s cool; the one whose commissioner pays lip service to the urgency of welcoming the league’s first female head coach; the one whose coaches think Donald Trump, the pussy-grabbing president, is bad, out loud; and the one whose fans and attendant media celebrated them for this, rather than performing outrage over it. The woke sport for woke people.

If there were much more to this than marketing and self-congratulation, it would bother the NBA and its broader ecosystem—including the many media types who find the sport’s positioning dovetailing in a happy sort of way with how they’d like to applaud themselves for their entertainment choices—to have as one of its celebrated icons an accused rapist who slut-shamed his accuser out of court. Kobe Bryant would not be invited to show up as a guest on NBA broadcasts to comment on the action and talk about how he’s transitioning into the next phase of his life; he would not be welcomed to do Wise Elder commentary in the video game the NBA uses to fund its e-sports venture; he would not be the retiree who shows up on ESPN Radio to perform as the avatar of the league’s flagship franchise, welcoming the sport’s biggest present-day star into the fucking Laker family. He would not get to go on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to do a cutesy promotion for his book about himself. The league’s reigning MVP, James Harden, would not show up beside him in a photo shoot, promoting their partnership in a line of beauty products for men. That would be toxic, obviously and intolerably; handlers would shoot Harden with a taser before they’d let him do it. Adam Silver himself would parachute through the ceiling to smash the camera. His grotesque animated advertisement for himself would have been booed off the screen before anyone considered giving it a fucking Academy Award.

Advertisement

I guess it’s not hard to figure out exactly what it means for things to have gone this way, where there’s still a lot of money and positive attention to be grasped at by associating Kobe Bryant with your brand. It’s good that the NBA, unlike the NFL, doesn’t war on its players for wearing activist hoodies. It’s good that LeBron James can call Donald Trump a bum on Twitter without being suspended or losing product sponsorships over it. It’s good that the NBA has coaches who have more and spicier shit to say about politics than grumbly caveman nonsense about supporting the troops, and that they feel safe saying it. It’s good, as far as it goes, that the NBA wants to be seen as the sports league for progressives who care about justice. It’s encouraging, in its way, to know that the cynics who run the league, and other cynics who want to sell things to basketball fans, have calculated this is a profitable avenue to pursue. But that—profit consideration—is as far as it goes, and as Kobe Bryant continues to demonstrate, it stops in a dismally familiar place.