Kobe Bryant and nine other people, including his daughter, died in a helicopter crash. Since he was a celebrity, his death was extensively covered. Since he was accused of sexual assault in 2003, that incident figured prominently in the discussion of his death, with writers struggling (in various degrees) with how to include that in his legacy. This raises various philosophical questions.
People feel connected to the celebrities they admire but this is a one-way relationship: fans think they know the celebrity; the celebrity knows they do not know the fans. From the perspective of a fan, this is analogous to loving or liking a fictional character. This is not to deny that in the one-way relationship between the typical fan and the typical celebrity can be meaningful or significant. For some, their love of a celebrity is a dominant part of their existence. For others it is merely important. Because of the importance of celebrities to their fans, there seems to be a need to discuss their death in the public arena. This is to analogous to how one would discuss the death of a friend or relative with other friends and relatives. In the case of a public celebrity, the conversation also occurs in the public arena—which is both an obvious and appropriate thing. That said, one could object and argue that celebrities deserve privacy in death and that it is especially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead.
While celebrities do not forfeit all their privacy rights, by voluntarily being celebrities and profiting from their status they morally warrant others to engage with them and their past in the public arena. This is the other side of the coin of fame; one cannot profit from being a celebrity and then consistently demand the full privacy rights of a non-celebrity. As such, there is as much right to discuss Kobe’s misdeed as there is to discuss his great accomplishments. A case can certainly be made that it is not fitting to bring up the 2003 incident in the context of his death—this argument could be built on an analogy to what should be said at a funeral. While this does have some appeal, a discussion of Kobe’s life does require considering all the relevant facts—and the assault allegation is relevant to due consideration of the man and his legacy.
As noted above, the young Kobe was accused in 2003 of rape. The charge was eventually dropped, Kobe issued an apology and then settled a civil case with the woman. Kobe claimed that he believed the sex was consensual but did acknowledge that he might have been wrong about this. Kobe was married at the time, so he was at least engaged in adultery. As such, even on the most favorable interpretation in favor of Kobe, this incident was a clear moral failure on his part. As such, it is part of his legacy. But it is not just what he did then that matters, it is also what he did (and did not) do since then.
While the sincerity of his apology can be debated, he did apologize and did settle a civil case. More importantly, he seemed to have learned from his experience. Unlike many other celebrities who engaged in assault, such as Weinstein and Trump, Kobe seems to have never again engaged in such behavior. While doing wrong is obviously wrong, persisting in wrongdoing is worse. While it would have been better if Kobe had not done what he did and he is to be condemned for it, it must also be said that he did not repeat his wrongdoing.
Supporters of Kobe point, correctly, to the good he has done over the years. One example is his creation of the Mamba Sports Academy. He was also active in supporting women and sports and a supporter of education. While these could be dismissed as celebrity PR moves, there is no compelling reason to question his motives. One should adopt a presumption of virtue rather than a presumption of vice: assume that a person is acting from laudable motives when they do good rather than assuming ill motives. This can be adjusted in the face of evidence. The good that Kobe did does not undo the bad, but it does serve as evidence of his character. After all, he could have done none of these good things.
Kobe is obviously best known for his prowess in basketball. On the face of it, his skill at sports is irrelevant to his moral assessment. Being good at sports does not make one a good person. People are, of course, often more forgiving of celebrities and tolerate their misdeeds more than they would those of the anonymous masses. This is a matter of psychology rather than ethics but it could be contended that his skill in sports created a positive value that offset his misdeeds—this would be a not-too-terrible utilitarian argument.
The moral challenge of assessing a person is often complicated for most people are a mix of good and bad. One obvious approach is to weigh their actions and the consequences, though this might seem problematic to some. People tend to have a negativity bias and though many value forgiveness, there is also the common belief that doing good does not erase the stain of evil. But to reject the notion of redemption is to take away a powerful reason to do better: if good deeds do not offset the bad, then there would be little reason to try to recover from being bad by doing good.
While I do agree that doing good generally does not erase the evil one has done, I also hold that the life of a person is weighed out upon the scale of morality and all their good and bad should be placed upon that scale. On the whole, Kobe seems to have changed in the light of his wrongdoing and went on to not only not do more wrong but to do good. As such, the scale would seem to tip in favor of good. One can, of course, raise questions about his motives. Perhaps the apology was simply a PR move, the payoff was to buy silence and his lesson was not that he did wrong, but that assaulting women was too risky and damaging to his career goals. Perhaps all his good deeded were merely PR moves for his brand. If so, then he would not merit moral praise—doing right for the wrong reasons is not virtue but mere pragmatism. But, as argued above, I favor the presumption of virtue over a presumption of vice and without evidence of ill motives on his part, it is best to laud him for the good he did while condemning the bad. The same approach should, of course, be applied to everyone be they a celebrity or an unknown.