The 2019 Women’s NCAA Tournament featured some legendary efforts:
- Megan Gustafson capped her collegiate career by bucketing her 1,000th point of the season during Iowa’s Elite Eight defeat.
- DiDi Richards spurred Baylor’s march to the Final Four with some dynamic scoring performances.
- Arike Ogunbowale dueled Chennedy Carter as Notre Dame edged Texas A&M in a scintillating Sweet Sixteen showdown.
- Katie Lou Samuelson put her squad on her balky back to help the Huskies defeat Louisville and secure their twelfth-straight Final Four berth.
- Sabrina Ionescu repeatedly stuffed the box score during Oregon’s journey to the Ducks’ first Final Four.
- The Baylor pair of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox then powered Baylor past Oregon into the National Championship game.
- The Fighting Irish, fueled by Jackie Young, showed their offensive firepower to overcome UConn and earn the right to defend their title.
- Chloe Jackson was clutch and Baylor claimed their third national championship.
Appropriately, ESPN advertised a tournament of legend-level performances through some of women’s college basketball’s greatest legends.
Geno. Dawn. Rebecca. Kara. A’ja.
Yes, in a sport full of worthy icons, ESPN elected to use Kobe Bryant to advertise women’s college basketball, with the commercial exposing women’s college basketball’s “Kobe conundrum” — Bryant’s increasingly prominent status in the sport, which raises an array of complicated questions.
Yet, there are no easy answers.
The problems with Kobe’s cred
For ESPN, the culminating image of Bryant communicates credibility. To sports fans, especially the ever-elusive 18- to 34-year-old male sports fans, the Black Mamba is supposed to signal seriousness, competitiveness. The network’s assumption, although possibly unsurprising, is problematic on multiple levels.
Using a male athlete to “sell” the importance of a women’s sporting event indicates ESPN’s belief in the secondary, less serious status of women athletes. It also shows the network’s unwillingness to use its institutional influence to actively challenge, and possible change, this assumption.
All the more, this male athlete, while wildly successful and widely admired, also is an accused rapist.
However, it also is worth considering Bryant’s presence from an alternative perspective.
The possibilities of Kobe’s cred
It is undoubtedly true that what Bryant provides is real, still-necessary credibility for the legitimacy for women’s college basketball. Because of the ideology and organization of sports culture in the United States, prominent male supporters, like it or not, do have a purposeful power.
It is conceivable that Bryant’s women’s basketball fandom has convinced some who were previously resistant to the sport to take it more seriously. Additionally, he has used his platform to promote the talent of women basketball stars at the collegiate and professional levels, highlighted by his recently-released ESPN+ Detail episodes about the stars of the Final Four squads.
Bryant’s influencer status matters.
Furthermore, as the father of three daughters, one of whom seems to have inherited her dad’s passion for the gym, Bryant’s interest in the sport and appreciation for its athletes appears genuine. He repeatedly has made time to mentor some of the women’s game’s most promising stars, as well as established legends.
How women’s basketball contributes to Kobe’s cred
Yet, at the same, it is hard to deny that Bryant has engaged in an extensive image reconstruction project, an ongoing effort that serves to scrub from his legacy any memories the 2003 incident in Eagle, Colorado.
Upon his retirement, Bryant has styled himself as a soothsaying basketball savant, as is most evident in his aforementioned Detail series and his Mamba Sports Academy. He is “more than athlete.” He is a multidimensional renaissance man, an Oscar-winner with aspirations of becoming a new media Matt Christopher and a junior varsity JK Rowling.
So, regardless of the sincerity of his fandom, Bryant’s eager endorsement of women’s college basketball and, in turn, women’s college basketball’s even more eager embrace of Bryant cannot be considered unrelated to his image rehabilitation efforts.
In fact, women’s college basketball boosts Bryant’s image rehab the most.
Unlike the Oscars or children’s media, women’s basketball is expressive of the agency of women. The sport is a showcase of young women’s capability, creativity and commitment. Because the crime of rape involves a willful disrespect of women’s agency, women’s basketball culture’s ready acceptance of Bryant and his believed legitimacy is particularly powerful.
By invoking Bryant and his “Mamba Mentality,” the stars of women’s basketball have helped him become basketball’s Dumbledore, an esteemed identity seemingly far removed his past sins.
For instance, after a January game at USC, Sabrina Ionescu and the Oregon Ducks not only giddily greeted Bryant, as well as his daughter Gigi, in their locker room, but they also gifted the Black Mamba a pair of his Nike Kobe ADs in an exclusive Oregon colorway.
Additionally, in response to her Naismith finalist snub, UConn senior Napheesa Collier stated:
“Yeah, I thought it was crazy, but I don’t need people voting to tell me I’m the best. I know I am. Kobe Bryant only won one M.V.P., so that shows the best player doesn’t always win. And to be honest, right now I’m focused on something they can’t vote on, which is winning a national championship.”
While the ability of women athletes to tap into their “Mamba Mentality” is a cultural development worthy of celebration, but their invocation of Bryant has other — likely unintended — implications.
The problem with women’s basketball contributing to Kobe’s cred
Bryant’s image rehabilitation is not just about Bryant as an individual. It is indicative of the ideological infrastructure of sports culture that allows, even encourages, the redemption of male athletes accused of crimes against women.
The intelligent Bryant, acutely aware of his image, expertly has used this system to his advantage.
In light of the recent allegations against Kristaps Porzingis, as well as in context with the specious clearing and subsequent “redemption” of Derrick Rose, it is worth asking if women’s basketball culture should so eagerly aid Bryant’s personal reconstruction project.
Yet, it also seems overly reactionary to expunge Bryant from the sport, especially when his middle daughter may well be taking the court in Storrs, Eugene or somewhere else in the near future.
A complicated Kobe conundrum
In short, Kobe poses a conundrum.
It is a conundrum that a single women’s basketball player or an individual women’s basketball team cannot be expected to solve.
However, as a women’s basketball culture, it is important to recognize the existence of this conundrum. It is incumbent to realize that Bryant’s presence in the sport brings possibilities and problems.
Powerfully placing Bryant at the close of a commercial does not encourage this awareness.
ESPN, more than any other institutional actor in American sports culture, can create cultural change. The multimedia conglomerate can choose to use its platforms to promote the ability, intelligence and expertise of women athletes, establishing them athletic authorities deserving of reverence and deference.
Rather than helping Bryant become Dumbledore, ESPN could make some McGonagalls. This year’s NCAA tournament certainly introduced some worthy future candidates.