In a recent ad campaign for the WNBA, NBA stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook spoke with admiration for the league in short clips. The latest of these features the recently-retired Kobe Bryant, and unlike the others, feels particularly unsettling.
The video went viral immediately, retweeted by the NBA’s account and aggregated by a slew of basketball and sports blogs. Certainly, Bryant’s name is renowned across the globe, and his notoriety serves well in the click and SEO-driven media landscape.
Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003, a case later settled out of court after the accuser opted out of her testimony. Think Progress’ Lindsay Gibbs’ 2016 story details the extent to which the defendant’s legal team went to blame the victim, tactics used in far too many cases involving popular athletes attempting, and succeeding, to escape legal repercussions for their actions.
Kobe might very well enjoy watching the WNBA and appreciate the role models the league has to offer for his daughters, but the video also acts as another page added to the log of Bryant’s unearned image rehabilitation. Shortly after the trial, Bryant changed his number on the court, became Los Angeles’ lone star as Shaquille O’Neal was dealt to Miami, embraced Nike’s Black Mamba persona, won a couple of titles and retired, all without any reconciliation for what happened that night, other than admitting to extramarital affairs.
Supporting the WNBA isn’t inherently an act of feminism, nor has Bryant been heralded as a champion of women. But it’s fair to question the substance in his words.
It’s not necessary to co-opt Kobe for this campaign, despite his name-recognition and basketball legacy. Bryant is using the league as much as the league is using him, to further wash away what he’s done, and become the beloved figure that he’s regarded as by many.
For the WNBA, a league trying to make women’s basketball as much of an American sports staple as their NBA-counterpart, working with an abuser to score more views, and in doing so allowing him to further recreate his own narrative, is devoid of principle and an egregiously corporate move.
The league does much to empower women, but they have their moments wherein they capitalize on supposed “wokeness” for good press, this being a prime example. Using Bryant to sell the league feels empty; instead of taking a stand, the league is doing what’s best for the bottom line.