Imagine, if you will, an outstanding athlete — immensely talented, handsome and proud, who is also the father of four daughters.
Now imagine that as a younger man he was credibly accused of rape. As he matured and welcomed his girls into the world, imagine that he reflected on his past and came to realize that he owed his accuser far more than a second-hand apology that dodged his responsibility. And perhaps closer to home, he owed the same to his daughters, precious girls that he would pray would never be violated.
Can you imagine how much good a man like that could do? His honest, heartfelt statement about the world he wanted for his daughters could have helped shaped the thinking of countless athletes-in-the-making, as well as the men who admire them. He could have helped women and girls summon the courage to say “no,” knowing he had their backs.
Kobe Bryant has been consistently portrayed as brave and generous, a natural leader, and his actions show it. He and his wife established a family foundation that has given millions of dollars to support kids’ programs ranging from soccer balls to books. He gave at least a million dollars to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Recently he became an enthusiastic ambassador and promoter for girls’ sports. In his too-short life, there is no question, Bryant did much good. And yet here is one opportunity he sadly missed.
When an earlier basketball legend, Magic Johnson, publicly and warmly embraced his openly gay son, EJ, he undoubtedly made it easier for many families to have honest conversations about sexuality. These athletes, by way of their talent and fame, have the eyes of the world upon them, why not use that influence for more than selling sneakers?
The stories of athletes violently attacking women have been a black eye on professional and collegiate sports for years. Here was a man uniquely positioned to influence his peers for the better while demonstrating a worthy role model for emerging athletes and an admirable father for his beloved daughters.
If a man of Bryant’s unparalleled stature had simply addressed the issue of sexual violence honestly, his example to other young, hyper-masculine athletes would have been far more influential than countless hours of sexual harassment seminars. If Kobe said it wasn’t cool to force yourself on an unwilling partner, millions of young people would have listened closely. If Kobe explicitly said women deserve respect in all aspects of their lives, many people would have listened. If Kobe said women are not to be used and discarded, people would have listened.
Reading the tributes upon his tragic death, one can see that his influence was vast. Looking back on video of him, it’s impossible not to respond to his wide smile and sparkling eyes. The man was charismatic. Kobe Bryant undoubtedly influenced many boys to grab a basketball. How I wish he had also influenced them not to grab women.
Karen Foss is a Santa Fe resident. She retired from the NBC affiliate in St. Louis after a 30-year career as a TV news anchor.