Trigger warning: The following opinion piece discusses allegations of physical abuse and sexual assault.
It was Halloween, last year, October 31st, 2018. Derrick Rose, once the youngest MVP in NBA history, had spent the better part of his career trying to recover from a series of knee injuries, including a torn ACL, that had seriously limited his ability to play at a level even close to the one he had reached at age 22. Failed stints with the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers had landed Rose on the Minnesota Timberwolves. And on that night, October 31st, 2018, Derrick Rose did something he had never done before, even during his MVP season: He scored a career high 50 points on the Utah Jazz. Twitter exploded, fans were already declaring 2018-2019 Derrick Rose comeback season, players from around the league congratulated him for overcoming his injury history and bringing his body back to what appeared to be peak form; LeBron James even called Rose the “true definition” of perseverance.
But while the mass of the NBA world cheered for him, NBA fans who are survivors of sexual assault and rape were reminded that the basketball community is not a space wherein they can exist safely.
Almost exactly two years before Derrick Rose’s 50-piece, Rose and two of his friends heard the decision in a civil lawsuit determining “whether he and two friends had raped his former girlfriend”. Rose admitted to not understanding the concept of “consent” during this trial, and also admitted to repeatedly badgering his then-girlfriend for group sex despite her repeated refusal and increasing discomfort. While Rose and his associates were found “not liable”, the impartiality of the suit’s jury has been called into question with reports that Rose signed autographs for jurors and took photos with them during and after the proceedings of the trial.
Derrick Rose’s 50 point performance, and the semi-comeback that has followed it during his stints with the Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, is a complicated thing to process emotionally. I refer to it as a “Cursed Comeback”, that is, when an NBA player with a known or alleged history of abuse or sexual assault returns from what could have been a career-ending or career altering injury.
It is easy to say, “These allegations are just that, allegations. Hasn’t he been through enough?”. It’s perhaps even easier to wave off the complexity of a ‘Cursed Comeback’ by suggesting that fans can “separate the athlete from the person,” i.e., celebrate their on court successes as their own item, divided from off court controversies.
What is difficult is to accept the fact that you cannot divide the athlete from the person, they occupy the same body. It is the same body that was injured, that has healed, the same body that dropped 50 points last Halloween, and the same body that forced its will onto another human being, and the same body that caused another human being terrible suffering, pain, and trauma. To divide the athlete from the person, to celebrate the accomplishments of the body while ignoring the violence that same body has done is to perpetuate a culture around the NBA where violence against women is normalized, accepted, and permitted.
Evidence of such a culture within the NBA and its fans is not hard to find. Look no further than earlier today, when Charles Barkley botched an apology to reporter Alexi McCammond after telling her, “I don’t hit women but if I did I would hit you”. Or look at last season, when Dwight Howard’s ex-girlfriend, a transgender woman named Masin Elije, broke her silence in a Twitter thread accusing Dwight Howard of sexually harassing her and using his entourage to blackmail and physically intimidate her into keeping their relationship a secret. The general reaction from the NBA fandom completely overlooked the accusations of abuse, simply leaping to making homophobic jokes at Dwight Howard’s expense, and misgendering and transphobic remarks at Elije’s expense. To the most vocal part of the NBA fan community, Dwight Howard’s attraction to a transwoman was more heinous than his abuse, assault, and intimidation of her.
This was particularly horrifying to me as a transgender member of the basketball community. With Dwight Howard’s return to the Los Angeles Lakers (and relevance) this season, the fan reaction to Masin Elije’s accusations has been buzzing in my mind again. Dwight Howard has gotten an opportunity at redemption, with articles about his returning from back surgery to fit his small role in LA offering such grand headlines as “From hated to hero”, acting as though all Howard should be hated for is not meeting Kobe Bryant’s standards and playing in the southeast for a few seasons. In only a single years time, the way Dwight Howard treated Masin Elije has been erased from his mainstream media narrative, whereas Elije is trapped as the undeserved subject of countless jokes in replies and comments on articles about her abuser. This year, the Lakers have more media scrutiny on them than any other team in the league and they did not think twice about signing a known abuser because they knew they did not have to. They knew that the mainstream NBA media, and community of fans, is simply not interested in holding abusers accountable for their actions. The Dwight Howard narrative moved clean passed these accusations, again, like with Derrick Rose, focusing on his comeback from injury.
And what of Kristaps Porzingis, who stands accused of having beaten and raped a woman shortly after tearing his ACL in his left knee while playing with the New York Knicks in early 2018? The case is ongoing, with Porzingis’ lawyers attempting a countersuit on extortion charges. While the twin lawsuits continue to strain on Porzingis’ accuser emotionally and financially, Kristaps Porzingis is living his best life in Dallas. Kristaps Porzingis was able to force his way out of a situation he disliked in New York to join up with fellow budding Eastern European sensation Luka Doncic and form one of the most promising and exciting young duos in the NBA. But, we cannot allow ourselves to separate Porzingis’ actions from his work on the court; especially considering his ongoing legal battles, in a strange way, provided him with more leverage in negotiating his exit to Dallas, as Knicks management reportedly knew of the accusations, per Woj, and preferred not to have to deal with it. In more ways than one, Kristaps Porzingis’ basketball career is allowed to flourish at the expense of the woman he is accused of raping.
He is seen, again, as a surging star who has overcome the limitations of his body, a “comeback kid” who deserves our adoration not only for his success, but for his perseverance. Like with Howard and with Rose, the Kristaps Porzingis narrative has quickly moved passed these allegations, even as the legal battles continue to rage. We are expected to forget, relegating these violent acts to a punchline or something to be denied by virulent stans of these players. The wave of accountability and survivor empowerment that has swept many fields over the past several years never seemed to arrive for the NBA, relegated to infuriating Twitter arguments and thinkpieces like this one. Watching these three players return to some level of prominence this season, and be celebrated with complete impunity, has not been the easiest thing to stomach. NBA fans cannot in good faith celebrate the return of these players’ bodies to full strength knowing full well what they have used their bodies for. It is on us to hold our idols accountable.
For more thoughts and opinions from Dani, click here.
Image Source: The Daily Best