Guest Column:Kobe-an American enigma

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A Russian newspaper headline says it all: “Bryant shines after tiring days in court.” the St. Petersburg Times April 20 edition went on to state that “after spending most of the last three days in a Colorado courtroom, Bryant had 31 points, six rebounds and 10 assists … “No Iraq, no mention of American Justice on trial, no rape shield laws and victim’s rights-just Kobe and his stellar NBA performance. Surfing the Web for articles on Kobe, I came up with references to 22,000 articles on him. Even the Agence France-Presse, among the international press, covers Kobe pre-trial hearings while tracking his NBA performance.

What is it about Kobe that, in the face of such looming stories, as the mutilation of four American civilians and the brutal display of their remains, or the alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, that continues to capture worldwide interest? Is it simply a story of how far a celebrity who has risen to the top, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan’s kingdom, may fall? Is it the “delicious” opportunity once again to vilify one whom we have deified in sports annals?

We’ve seen all this before. But somehow things are different. These are different times. And the context is significant. Our senses are under siege with continuous threats of terrorism on our own soil, with rising anti-Americanism worldwide. American ideals are being challenged; our hallowed institutions and morals are being tested as never before. The character of the American people is at stake. The quality of our lives has been forever changed by 9/11. In this milieu, American justice will determine the guilt or innocence of Kobe Bryant on a world stage.

If you are the prosecution, you’d be worried about the public need to root for a hero; the need to find Kobe innocent, so he can continue on his quest to become the best basketball player ever. We know he is not perfect. But can he still be regarded as a hero of our times? Mikhail Lermontov in 1840 observed that “A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom.” The imperfect hero who has the corporate largesse of private jet shuttles to and from the Eagle, Colorado courthouse where he is pitted against the means and might of the prosecution; and to the NBA arenas where he is asked to perform like the gladiators of olden times. An athlete adored by millions, known to the world by four letters. Yes, there is a machinery in place to keep Kobe’s hero status alive, if nor for him, for our time. And the media is a willing party to this task. Yes, the prosecution has much to worry about.

If you are the defense, you’re worried about the backlash and resentment that may stem from the resources of a powerful black athlete who, for a few fateful hours, entered the hallowed grounds of a primarily white bastion where he is alleged to have violated one of their young women; a subtext of racial overtones inheres. If race could become an issue with O.J. (a man who transcended the racial divide, a man who was adored by people of all colors, the face of Hertz) then it certainly could become an issue in Colorado.

Victims of violent crimes have, in recent years, raised an effective, if not eloquent voice against those who try to vilify victims of violent crimes, especially those who have survived sexual assaults. They demand that the justice system protect victims from further abuse. They demand that judges insulate alleged victims from aggressive defense strategies. There is pressure to do what is politically correct—namely, to side with victim’s rights wherever possible. Support from victim’s rights groups can make the difference in a judge’s quest for higher judicial offices. While a judge will not consciously pander to the foregoing, we cannot say what subliminal influences drive his or her rulings, especially here, where there are sophisticated issues that turn on very spongy and wiggly points.

Next we’ll talk about the narrower legal issues that define Kobe’s and the alleged victim’s right to a fair trial.