The animated short film “Dear Basketball” opens in the tense final moments of a game, with seconds left on the clock. Fans cheer, sneakers squeak across the court. Among the black-and-white, pencil-drawn players, one in a number 24 purple jersey emerges, leaping up in slow motion, sinking the perfect shot. The announcer’s voice rings out, “Bryant for the win!” And the crowd goes wild.
Adapted from the poem Kobe Bryant wrote to announce his retirement, “Dear Basketball” was directed by Glen Keane, who animated Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, with music by Oscar-winning composer John Williams. Earlier this year, the short film won an Annie Award, one of the animation industry’s highest honors, making it a front-runner for the Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards this Sunday. As an executive producer on the film, Bryant is expected to receive the award—but not everyone is cheering for him.
In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, when decades-old allegations are resurfacing against high-profile Hollywood men like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, the NBA star, who was accused of rape in 2003, has remained relatively immune to media backlash regarding the past allegation. That may soon change, as over 16,000 people have signed a Care2 petition to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, asking for Bryant’s nomination to be removed.
Kelsey Bourgeois, who started the petition and is an advocacy communications coordinator for Care2 as well as a sexual assault survivor herself, thinks the nomination “sends the message that certain people are still above the rules of society.”
Other advocates for sexual assault survivors, like Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, and founder of the non-profit Women, Action & the Media, say his presence at the Oscars could be a distraction from the work of women speaking out against sexism and abuse in the industry. “There’s this very false impression that because there were allegations and court proceedings but he wasn’t convicted that he’s been acquitted, so it must be OK,” says Friedman.
But Bryant wasn’t acquitted: Before the trial was to start, the woman who accused him decided not to testify. Initially, the 19-year-old told police that on June 30, 2003, Bryant, who was 24 at the time, raped her in his room at The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Colorado, where she worked. In a videotaped interview with police the morning after the alleged assault, the woman said Bryant had asked her for a personal tour of the hotel and invited her back to his room. According to the transcripts, the woman said Bryant asked her for a hug. They hugged. Then they kissed. “And then the kissing continued then he took off his pants. And that’s when I tried to back up and leave,” she said. “And that’s when he started to choke me.” Following her police interview, she had a physical exam. According to a police affidavit, the sexual assault nurse found her injuries "consistent with penetrating genital trauma" and with the woman's account of events.
The next day, police interviewed Bryant, who denied having sex with the woman. When they told him they had physical evidence, he said they had sex, but it was consensual. Police issued an arrest warrant two days later; he turned himself in and was released on bond. One year later, shortly before the trial was scheduled to start, the woman decided not to testify and the criminal charges were dropped. She filed a civil suit. Bryant issued a public apology to the woman without admitting guilt, and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
At the time, Bryant lost endorsement deals with McDonald’s and Nutella but kept deals with Sprite and Nike. He retired in 2016 with $680 million in career earnings, according to Forbes, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has called Bryant “one of the greatest players in the history of our game.”
Friedman thinks the collective amnesia around the alleged assault in part has to do with the apparent absence of the victim today. “There’s no woman to root for and to stand with,” she says. “#MeToo is still relying on the labor of survivors. Because there’s no survivor here who’s able to or willing to do that painful emotional labor, it doesn’t exist.”
It remains to be seen if individuals in Hollywood who have been vocal about supporting the work of men with past allegations will speak out against Bryant. Last month, Natalie Portman apologized for signing the Roman Polanski petition, which urged for his release after he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009, having fled the US in 1977 after admitting to having sex with a child. Additionally, multiple actors have come forward to say that they will not work with Woody Allen, in light of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusations that he sexually assaulted her as a child. Some have gone even further; Rebecca Hall, who was shooting a movie with Allen around the time the Weinstein accusations came out, announced in January that she is donating her wages to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
But it’s unlikely that Bryant will be questioned about his previous allegation at the Oscars, especially as Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel announced that he will not be talking about the #MeToo movement Sunday night, and that the show is “not about reliving people’s sexual assaults.”
At the 2016 Oscars, Lady Gaga performed an impassioned and wrenching rendition of her nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. At the end of the performance, Gaga, who has talked openly about being a victim of sexual assault, was joined onstage by fifty survivors in a powerful tableau that brought the audience to its feet. “Everyone clapped for them and talked about how they were so brave,” says Friedman. “If they give Kobe an Oscar, they’re going to prove themselves the biggest hypocrites. You can clap for these survivors and their bravery, you can stand up and say ‘Time’s up,’ or you can give Kobe Bryant an Oscar. But you can’t mean both.”
Though Bryant was never convicted, Bourgeois argues that it still sends the message that he’s exempt from #TimesUp, and that his celebrity outweighs the gravity of the past accusation against him. “He settled with his accuser,” Bourgeois says. “So in my mind, that doesn't really make him innocent—it just makes him able to pay off someone who he wronged. I, of course, couldn't possibly know what actually happened. But we have to believe women, especially when they accuse men who are typically ‘above the law,’ so to speak.”
“Hollywood is a long way from actually addressing the issue (of sexual assault),” Friedman adds. “We have to talk about it even when it’s your fave, Kobe Bryant. We have to be willing to confront this as part of a system that treats women’s bodies as entitlements for powerful men. I wish I understood why no one seems to care.”