Kobe-vision: Why it matters

There is nothing I want to do less than write about Kobe Bryant. Typing K-O-B-E immediately brings the urge to itch, shower, and possibly delouse. But I itch to comment because 24 hour Kobe-vision, while a theater of the absurd, is raising real issues about sports celebrity, race, class, and gender in the United States. Let's look beneath the hot buttons:

Does Kobe-Vision Matter?
There is a debate in the sports world about whether Kobe-vision is being driven by public interest, or if it's the media coverage itself that's driving the story. Mark Cuban, the braying billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner said last week, "From a business perspective, [the rape trial] is great for the NBA. It's reality television. People love train wreck television and you hate to admit it, but that is the truth, that's the reality today."

Cuban, in what has to be seen as a step-forward, actually gets it half right. Yes it's great for business, but not the NBA's. It is ka-ching for CNN, MSNBC, Fox and any news outlet that has 24 hours of programming to kill.

But Cuban, who lives in a gated community INSIDE a gated community, is also half wrong. It is entirely disingenuous to say that this is what the public wants when it is all the public gets. How can people express any desire to not watch Kobe-vision if that is all there is? It proves nothing, for example, that McDonalds is the most successful restaurant in my neighborhood since it is the only restaurant in my neighborhood.

But even if this scandal is being reported in a way that would make Rupert Murdoch blush, Kobe's fall is compelling on it's own terms.
Throughout sports history there have been athletes ruthlessly marketed as the faces of their sport. Joe DiMaggio's lifetime stats pale in comparison to contemporaries like Stan Musial. But it is DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, who endures as an icon.
Joe Namath threw 40% more interceptions than touchdowns with a Heath Shuler-esq lifetime completion percentage of 50.1%. But wild charisma and savvy marketing has meant that everybody knows Joe Namath. Yet Vikings QB Joe Kapp, with infinitely better stats, is nobody's "Broadway Joe." He's not even "Annapolis Dinner Theater Joe." Of course DiMaggio and Namath had talents that captured the imagination, but their jerseys are more at home in the Smithsonian than the Hall of Fame. Now imagine if Namath, the summer after his 1969 Super Bowl III win, or DiMaggio, in the afterglow of his majestic 56 game-hitting streak, was on trial for rape.
In other words, Kobe's situation is completely without precedent. This is regrettably compelling on its own terms. But more so, the case has opened up space for regular folks to vent about subjects usually closed off from mainstream discussion and debate.

Racism Or Just Racey?
Kobe will face a jury in a county that is .03% African-American, charged with sexually assaulting a 19 year old former cheerleader, who happens to be white. As much as we may want to say race will not play a role in the prosecution of this case, we also need to know better. The prosecution will play the race card for the same reason I am writing about it: because it is there.Kobe, and his legal team, have attempted already to beat the prosecution to the punch. Kobe's sartorial splendor at last week's Teen-Choice awards, was no less a uniform than his lavender and gold number 8. He wore baggy jeans, a Muhammad Ali t-shirt, and a cross, as Kam Williams wrote, "big enough to be crucified on."

Kobe also took the time to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., saying that "Injustice somewhere hurts justice everywhere."
On the one hand, it is incredible the enduring symbolic value of the great Muhammad Ali and the message of mass appeal that hip-hop fashion and culture has.On the other hand, it is tough not to imagine Kobe's lawyers dressing him backstage, a sixty-year-old attorney yanking on the seat of his jeans for an extra touch of "street cred."

Remember, this is Kobe, the millionaire suburban son of a globetrotting basketball star. But as the saying goes, "just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't trying to get you."

No Class?
Chris Rock once said about the OJ case, "If OJ didn't have cash, he wouldn't be 'Juice'. He'd be 'Orenthal the bus driving white lady killer.'" Kobe, similarly, is demonstrating that innocence and guilt is more a product of a defendant's bank account than the facts. Justice may be blind but it sure isn't poor.

Accusing the Accuser
Kobe-land has also imposed upon us his formally anonymous 19 year old accuser, whose life has been dragged through the mass media and internet gutter. There are currently 1,820 websites and counting that have her picture and name posted.
There are camera trucks around her house 24 hours a day. She can't work and can't afford to leave. She is basically under a media imposed house arrest.

No matter how this case ends, no matter what "really happened", women without question will be less inclined to come forward in cases of abuse. That is the real world, which like so much of Kobe-vision, breathes fiercely underneath this shell of the absurd.

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