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ISSUE 117 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/7/2003

Kobe’s Public Hearing

By Julie Gunderson
Sports Editor

Friday, November 7, 2003

The Court of Public Opinion can be a fickle thing for America’s athletes. Its unpredictable nature often befuddles them, never quite letting them know when it’s bound to convict or destined to vindicate. Take for instance the plight of the acquitted double-murderer. For some there is little mercy. A Heisman trophy, a Hall of Fame football career and a glove that wouldn’t fit still wasn’t enough to acquit O.J. Now, this one-time football legend has been banished from society. Simpson is forever doomed to toil on the golf courses of America alone. And to be ruthlessly ridiculed every time he steps to the microphone and tries to announce his sincere intentions of beginning his next search for the real killer.

O.J. has to feel like he’s been given a raw deal in this whole thing, especially when he looks at Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis, a fellow acquitted double-murderer, but one that managed to escape the public’s cruel judgment. Lewis, who was charged in the stabbing deaths of two men at a post-Super Bowl party in Atlanta in 2000, used the brilliant legal device known as the— plea agreement— to worm his way out of a conviction. He has since continued his NFL career and most recently signed endorsement deals with Reebok and EA Sports. It makes you think that Lewis appearing with his mother in a Campbell’s Chunky Soup commercial isn’t far behind. Or, perhaps, a United Way spot for the NFL? (Voice over: This is Baltimore Ravens’ Linebacker, Ray Lewis. He spends his off-season picking up trash along the highway in his orange jumpsuit. You don’t have to commit a felony in order to help out where you live. You too can serve your community just like Ray.)

It remains to be seen what public opinion will do with the latest star-crossed athlete to fall into the trappings of our legal system. The lead-up to Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant’s rape trial has been hashed out in the media ad nauseam, but the trial's outcome is bound to hold little suspense. Bryant’s trial will play out just like the scores of other star-athlete's trials have before his. A combination of fame and a highly paid legal team will buy your innocence every time out.

No, Bryant’s real trial will not be fought in a Colorado courtroom, rather his biggest test lies in the public’s court of opinion.

By all early indications, it looks like Bryant is in good shape here as well. Of course, Bryant’s clean-cut image has been soiled enough to scare away a large quantity of advertisers. And in this regard, Bryant’s selling power has suffered more than Lewis’, mainly because Lewis didn’t have any good name to protect before his legal troubles began.

Bryant however, is feeling little pain, other than the few millions missing from his wallet. Last week when Bryant made his season debut away from the Laker faithful, he was hailed not with a chorus of boos but a smattering of applause. A clear signal that the basketball-watching public at large has already pardoned their one-time nemesis.

Bryant himself has already put his legal nuisances behind him, taking the public’s forgiveness for granted. Instead of putting on an angelic face and answering to the media with yes ma’ms and no sirs, Bryant has been busy demonstrating what a fine teammate he truly is, by trading low blows with teammate Shaquille O'Neil through the press.

Apparently, Bryant does have reason to be cocky about his current standing with the public. For most basketball junkies, Bryant’s he said/she said feud is nothing new. They’ve seen it plenty of times before. It is just another one of the on-the-job hazards of being a professional athlete. It’s just another case of a woman crying victim and then laughing herself all the way to the bank.

With so many people ready to accuse Bryant’s accuser, it makes you wonder if all our indicted athletes aren’t somehow the true victims of these messy legal proceedings?

Somehow Bryant’s 19-year-old accuser seems different than the plethora of women who have preceded her. Maybe it’s because she isn’t out holding daily press conferences with the media. Or because she has yet to sign that book or movie deal. Or because she didn’t decide to tell her story to the local tabloid on the eve of election night or hours before the start of the NBA Finals.

All of this is a moot point with the public, which sits on the verge of letting Bryant walk off a free man. The final verdict is only a matter of time. It also means that poor O.J. really is fated to end up all alone after all — As America’s only accused athlete, the public didn’t let get away.

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