Kobe Bryant and the Politics of Sports

Two weeks ago, I ended the first lecture of my POLI 177: Sports and Politics with a gentle ribbing of my students by showing them a slide with purple and gold text, adorned with four images of Kobe Bryant dunking on some helpless defenders. This was going to be an enjoyable semester, but the students would have to indulge my Lakers fandom from time to time.

Like millions, I was shocked to hear that Bryant, his daughter, and seven other passengers were killed in a helicopter crash. Thousands in the city of Los Angeles spent the day outside of Staples Center to pay their respects, with presidents, celebrities, and journalists offering their condolences and tributes to Bryant’s family and his fans. Despite an ongoing impeachment trial of President Trump and the outbreak of the coronavirus, the lead story of every major news site was Bryant’s death.

How is it that the death of a basketball player could have such an impact? For millions, sport is life, and life is fundamentally political. Which city is awarded the Olympics, how much athletes are paid, and why soccer players can forgo military conscription is informative of what is valued in society.

Bryant was a controversial figure on and off the court, and the debates around his career were a microcosm of greater societal debates. On the court, he was a transcendent player who secured five NBA titles, an MVP award, and countless game-winners over a 20-year career. Fans and analysts would argue if he mirrored his game too closely to Michael Jordan, or was a poor teammate, or played the game the right way. These questions were the least interesting. There were only so many stories one could write about Bryant playing hard and being obsessed with winning. He played hard. He won.

Debates over Bryant’s controversial remarks on the Travon Martin shooting, use of a gay slur, and sexual assault case brought intense media attention and generated public debate on race, class, privilege, discrimination, and celebrity among other issues. On some issues, Bryant grew and sought to make amends, while on others, he left evidence of remorse or regret in the opaque verbiage of legal settlements. Regardless, the fandom Bryant generated brought people across Los Angeles and around the world together, and when people come together, people tend to discuss politics. Such politics have led to positive developments such as increased awareness of gender inequities in raising families, symbolized by the #girldad hashtag trending on Twitter. Conversely, the debates over Snoop Dogg’s criticism of Gayle King’s broaching the rape charge against Bryant during an interview with WNBA star Lisa Leslie reveal a deeply divided society on issues that intersect race and gender.

Despite the controversies over whether athletes should be political (the “stick to sports” crowd), society places its politics on athletes. Bryant’s success was always going to demand attention. I’m not referring to his 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006, but his success in business across several sectors. Despite the multi-million-dollar contracts, many athletes go broke not long after retirement. Unlike Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Magic Johnson, Bryant was the prototype for a new post-retirement model that was not tied to basketball. He was a young, intelligent, black man who understood the power and responsibility that came with celebrity.

Bryant’s post-basketball career was going to be the most interesting part of his life. A mega-superstar in China, a producer, and an investor, Bryant had the social capital to promote products and ideas more effectively than most. One could imagine that Bryant would have been one of the most impactful advocates of the WNBA as evidenced by his close relationship with his daughter Gigi, whom he touted as a future star.

Bryant’s success on the court is without controversy. Even Bryant’s greatest critics acknowledge that he was one of the greatest players to play the game. I expect that with some time, the media and the public will litigate his personal life and what it meant for his career. Regardless of how the dust settles, how we see his career told will continue to tell us a lot about ourselves.