Kobe Bryant and Sport for Social Change #MacroSW

by Stacy E Kratz, Ph.D., LCSW, CAP

Sport and Macro Social Work practice have been together since Jane Addams helped bring the Play Movement to the United States. Macro Social Work positions itself for changing larger scale social problems by intervening at the systems level. Sport is a large global system acknowledged widely for its impact at every level of society, and sport can offer solutions where change is needed. Sport giant Kobe Bryant, who even in retirement was continuing to use sport for system change, such as in his work with women’s professional basketball, died tragically this past weekend.

The tragic death of legend Bryant at 41 is harrowing. The whole world is grieving, and grieving the loss of his daughter Gianna, and the other victims of the Calabasas helicopter crash. It is within this grieving that I reflect on Bryant’s legacy and the impact on me as a macro social worker.

Kobe Bryant started playing basketball before I started paying attention. Still, it wasn’t long into his professional career that I started seeing and marveling the headlines that continually delivered stories of his largesse, including how he went professional right after high school, and in 1996 became the youngest player in the history of the NBA. Everyone knew he took his devotion to basketball and winning to the court, and scored in so many ways. For twenty years he forever reached new bold heights and earned award after award, including 18 All-Star selections, three different Most Valuable Player Awards, and even two Olympic gold medals. Even after his 2016 retirement from the game, the accolades continued in new interesting arenas, including the 2018 Oscar for his film Dear Basketball, the five-minute animated movie where he narrated a love letter to the sport and announced his professional athlete retirement. I knew about and appreciated much of his brilliance but when I really first started paying attention to Kobe Bryant it was in 2003.

That year, Kobe Bryant was dead-center in the middle of a legal battle where he was charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment. The accuser was a 19-year-old female hotel employee working at the resort where had been staying. He eventually admitted to a sexual encounter but denied it was assault, stating he believed the two had consensual sex. The case was dropped after the accuser refused to testify, but later she filed a civil suit that ended with a settlement out of court. Then something happened: Bryant publicly apologized, and acknowledged her perspective. It went like this:

“I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did… After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

It was then that I realized the power of sport for large scale social change. The world was watching and we saw this larger-than-life celebrity sports figure admit change was needed. Whether Bryant realized it or not, the sport platform used as a voice for social justice, though used many times previously by giants like Billy Jean King and Muhammad Ali, was now used in the new millennium as a powerful force to make a difference. By Bryant apologizing in this public way, the voice of women who had suffered sexual assault now was elevated for the next generation.

Of course Bryant’s admission didn’t take his accuser’s pain away – the continued healing from sexual assault often has no end game… the work endures. Sexual assault and physical violence are an injustice and never ok. RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and leading authority on sexual violence, reports every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. I can’t imagine the pain his accuser felt, but in 2003 as a budding macro social worker, my attention was drawn to the sport platform and its power to move mountains, to influence issues of social justice and peace. It was then I added sport social work to my macro practice outlook, even though as a profession we hadn’t named the sub-specialty yet. The official sub-specialty title is here now though, and using sport for peace and social justice means recognizing sport can change attitudes and positively influence needed transformation.

Grieving Kobe Bryant and the eight others in that helicopter reminds me deeply that through this devastating loss we can show the world how sport is used to lift the voice of those who are vulnerable, disenfranchised, and at-risk. Sport brings us together, and it’s well documented that in many areas of Bryant’s life, he helped people reach beyond themselves. I just read a telling Instagram post: an entire generation of kids rolled up a piece of paper and yelled kobe as they sank that shit into a trash can. that’s legacy. Bryant’s legacy will continue to move the game of life forward into perpetuity. May he rest in power.

Dr. Kratz is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She has taught across the curriculum, and is lead faculty for the Virtual Academic Center’s policy coursework.  Additionally, she has served as faculty lead for the School’s sport social work task force, and has presented nationally and internationally on sport for social development and peace. 

She is one of the founding patrons of #MacroSW.

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