An untimely critique of Kobe Bryant

The over-riding emotion to Kobe Bryant's death appears to be outrage.

Timing is everything.

In the case of the Washington Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez, who tweeted a link to an article outlining the historic sexual assault case against Kobe Bryant in the immediate aftermath of the basketball legend’s death in a helicopter crash, the timing was unquestionably poor.

“Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” Sonmez insisted as 10,000 digital death threats descended upon her.

That’s a valid point. But the time for totality isn’t when the full horror of an accident that also claimed the lives of three children is still in the process of being revealed.

Sonmez’s tweets revealed an utter emotional disconnection to the human tragedy that had just unfolded.

In her defence, that trait is vital for many of those operating in a profession that, when practised correctly, trades in facts rather than emotion.


Chalk Sonmez up as another victim of the perils of social media and its facilitation of self-publishing.

Had she – as would have been mandatory pre-social media - walked into an editor’s office and pitched the idea of an article outlining a global icon’s failings as a human being in the immediate aftermath of their tragic death the answer would have been ‘no thanks’. Or at best, ‘not yet’.

Every journalist knows the frustration that comes with such editorial roadblocks – but most would acknowledge that these have, at times, saved them from themselves.

The tangent upon which Sonmez’s single original tweeted link – which featured not a word of reference or explanation – took the reporting on Bryant’s death morphed into a closed loop with remarkable swiftness.

She was condemned, threatened, suspended, defended and reinstated inside 72 hours.

“The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” Washington Post managing editor Tracy Grant said in confirming Sonmez’s suspension.

That didn’t fly with the newspaper’s union, nor the 300 of her colleagues who lodged protests.

“Instead of protecting and supporting a reporter in the face of abuse, the Post placed her on administrative leave while newsroom leaders review whether she violated the social media policy,” read a statement by the Washington Post Guild.

“Felicia had to leave her home out of fear for her safety and has gotten insufficient guidance from the Post on how to protect herself.”

Which brings us to the crux of this column. Whatever your views on Sonmez’s tweet and Bryant’s standing as a human being, death threats and virulent abuse are simply not a rational nor justifiable reaction.

That a single ill-timed but not entirely unjustifiable tweet could whip a digital mob into an instant frenzy is yet another alarming demonstration of the toxic side of social media.

At a time when the only suitable emotion in response to the tragic loss of nine lives should be deep sadness, the prevailing emotion appears to have been outrage.

The global nature of that troubling phenomenon was underlined by New Zealand’s parallel reaction to the first semi-prominent person to posit the existence of a need to ponder Bryant’s legacy more fully.

Comedian Guy Williams walked straight into a twitter shitstorm by posting that obituaries that didn’t reference the 2003 case against Bryant didn’t “feel right” to him.

Why Williams would do such a thing is hard to fathom? The only plausible explanation is that he, for some crazy reason, believed twitter was a platform where he could state what he actually thought and engage in considered discussion.

Madness. And a madness that clearly didn’t factor in the irrational attachment many sports fans form with their idols.

Human behaviour doesn’t become much more irrational than people issuing death threats to people they’ve never met because they’ve slighted – imaginarily or actually – someone else they’ve never met.

It doesn’t matter that these attachments are entirely one-way. Rationally, we know our sporting heroes don’t feel the same way about us as we feel about them – and it doesn’t matter a jot.

The human capacity to care so deeply about people who don’t even know we exist is actually quite encouraging and endearing, right up to the point where it morphs into a death threat on twitter.

How societies deal with the toxic side effects of social media that are now so prevalent and contagious they can no longer be ignored will be fascinating.

Hopefully what the Washington Post’s editors realised when they came to their senses was that cowering in the face of the mob is not the answer.

When I mentioned to a friend that this column would be about Kobe Bryant and the reaction to the untimely airing of his past, she pointed out that I would get slaughtered.

That, of course, is true. Despite the references to the sexual assault case that Bryant faced being made as neutral as possible, his sporting disciples will be appalled by its very mention. Those who feel he escaped punishment despite committing a heinous crime will be equally outraged by the mere attempt to be non-pejorative.

The haters will hate.

So why do it?

Because this is a sports column - and sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Without social context, the greatest games have no meaning, and those who play them are irrelevant.

If the mob is allowed to rule, sport (and society) will be the loser.

One of the greatest athletes of all time is dead. The circumstances are deeply tragic. His legacy is in the process of being defined. To ignore that because it was the easy option would have been a dereliction of duty.

That, I suspect, is precisely how Felicia Sonmez felt as her finger hovered over the send button after composing her tweet.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners