Commentary: Bryant's image at risk

By RON COLBERT, UPI Sports Editor  |  July 8, 2003 at 4:32 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 8 (UPI) -- All-Star guard Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers is the latest marquee athlete to face a criminal accusation.

Bryant, 24, has been accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct that allegedly took place at a resort in Eagle, about 120 miles west of Denver and just west of Vail. Bryant was arrested after the Eagle County, Colo., sheriff's office obtained a warrant from a county judge, who determined there was probable cause for an arrest. Bryant, accompanied by his wife, posted a $25,000 bond and was released from jail.

From everything you hear and read, the charge and the incident seem surreal.

Appearances indicate Bryant has been a model citizen and athlete. He was a high school All-American in Lower Merion, Pa., a first-round NBA draft pick straight out of high school, got married and had his first child in the past two years, won three NBA championships, and is adored by legions of fans of all ages, ethnic groups and income brackets, not only in Los Angeles but around the globe.

The Lakers are as shocked as everyone else.

"Our players, including Kobe, get 100 percent of our support all the time," said Los Angeles General Manager Mitch Kupchak. "In this case, absolutely the case."

What is odd about this situation is that the district attorney of Eagle County, where Bryant was arrested, said the arrest was made without his knowledge.

"Right now I need to review the reports and look at the evidence," said Mark Hurlbert, who is the district attorney for Eagle and several Colorado mountain counties. Hurlbert said it was possible Bryant might be charged with sexual assault, something else, or possibly wouldn't be charged at all. He said Bryant's next court appearance would be Aug. 6, only if he was charged.

Bryant's image could take a beating while the case is pending and while media and public speculation run rampant.

There has been lots of banter about one of today's popular hip-hop terms "street cred." That means Bryant is not as popular with the youngsters as other hoop stars like Allen Iverson, scholastic phenom LeBron James and All-Star Tracy McGrady, who, like Bryant and James, was drafted straight out of high school.

Also, Bryant has lucrative endorsement deals hanging in the balance. While he runs the risk of having his image being trashed, you have Portland guard Damon Stoudamire suspended and fined after being caught holding marijuana for a third time (and he's only one of several Portland players facing legal hassles), athletes from a number of sports being shot or stabbed outside of gentlemen's clubs, and the arrest of a player with the Arizona Cardinals, Dennis McKinley, who is accused of running a drug ring and has been released before he stands trial.

You would be hard-pressed to find any person or headline that speaks negatively about Bryant. The problem is, this is a bad time to be a star athlete accused of a bad deed.

Lately, this has been a society of guilty until proven innocent; and in this case, the fact that authorities have not yet concluded they have enough evidence to file a charge is not in his favor.

Also, there is the question of how Bryant could do something stupid in the midst of all his good luck. He can play and has earned every penny of his big-salary contract, and there is hope that he did not fall into the trap that has snared a number of his counterparts.

Guilty or not, right or wrong, unjust or not, this incident is likely to be a lasting blotch on Bryant's reputation.

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