The Grown up Reality Behind The Kobe Bryant Scandal
July 25, 2003By Warren Goldstein Warren Goldstein teaches American history at the University of Hartford. will be published by Yale University Press next year.
I’d better start with a confession. I’m 52 years old and have been writing and teaching about the history of sports for more than 20 years. But I’m no cynic: When I heard the news about Kobe Bryant, my stomach clenched in a kind of Ooooh, nooooo.” Not Kobe.
It’s a child’s reaction, of course, today’s version of the boy’s plea to Shoeless Joe Jackson to disavow his role in the Black Sox scandal: Say it ain’t so, Joe.” I thought I had lost my own innocence one evening 25 years ago talking to a reporter friend who covered the Yankees, a team I all but worshiped. What I learned about my heroes’ sex lives that evening made me sad (if covertly envious) and forced me into a kind of sports adulthood: If I was going to keep rooting for these guys, I had to do so understanding that my favorite ballplayers might be mediocre human beings. Even though I still carry some of their baseball cards in my wallet, I thought I had managed to grow up.
The impulse to fantasize and regress must be powerful, though. Because I just got snookered again. Instead of relying on what I know about human nature and the lives of sports stars, I went along with the media image: that this handsome, charming, breathtakingly talented 24 year old family man with a winning smile and no history of legal trouble could handle wealth, adoration and superstardom. wholesale jerseys from china He even looked like that complete rarity, a role model for kids. More wishful thinking.
Though we don’t know everything that happened between Kobe and his 19 year old accuser, we know plenty. With no Clintonian tap dance, Bryant admitted his adultery.
The larger truth is that, like other rich and famous entertainers, Kobe has lived in a golden cocoon for years one we fans helped spin. Because we buy the products he endorses, and tune into his games, and buy his jerseys for our children, we have helped to create an unreal world for him where money never runs out, fame is constant, assistants book his flights and pick up his dry cleaning and pay his bills and (no matter what happened in Colorado) beautiful women offer themselves to him all the time. His very success has taught him the unfortunate lesson that he can have pretty much anything he wants, without consequences. The cocoon of wealth and fame has kept him from having to develop adult relationships.
There’s no point in getting moralistic here. On and off the courts and diamonds and fields, professional athletes simply get to live out adolescent male fantasies. And that’s our problem as much as theirs.
A friend’s 18 year old daughter showed him one of her college papers this past year. At the opening line American masculinity is in crisis” he burst out laughing before he could stop himself. (She wasn’t amused.) I’m beginning to think she had it right. Just as American women are earning unprecedented proportions of law, medical and bachelors’ degrees, too many American men still seem to prefer the fantasies peddled by Maxim, FHM and Stuff: as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it recently, of hot chicks in hot pants.” Or they dream of macho chic, as college professors sport FDNY caps and the most powerful man in the world talks Texas cowboy tough in the White House.
The world of men’s sports encourages women as well as men to act out our most primitive sex roles. Since it takes at least two to tango, thousands of eager women helped create the sexual legends around Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain, for example. And what exactly do we think is being played out on the NBA floor between quarters, as the young dancers” gyrate suggestively in skintight outfits, under the guise of cheerleading”? This is the precise dynamic that made Kobe Bryant’s accuser either a rape victim at worst or just a willing adulterer at best.
I used to think sports made us appreciate a more complex human reality. Now I’m not so sure. The Kobe Bryant scandal shows us what we risk as a society by putting our male athletic celebrities into a different category of human: hero, or superstar, or role model. Instead of living happily in a world of fantasy, all of us Kobe, his wife, his accuser, his fans now have to sort our way through a painful, ugly, all too grown up reality.