King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Kobe Bryant is lucky: In our minds, he's that rare defendant who's innocent until proven guilty.

By Salon Staff
Published July 21, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

We're a little more than two weeks away from the first preliminary hearing in Kobe Bryant's rape trial, and it's amazing to me how many people already seem to have made up their mind about his guilt or innocence. And frankly, what I find amazing is the snap assumption that he's not guilty. It smacks of misplaced celebrity worship at best, misogyny at worst.

Desmond Mason of the Milwaukee Bucks spoke for many when he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "That's totally out of his character ... He doesn't seem like he's that type of guy."

Here's what we know: A 19-year-old female employee of the posh resort hotel in Colorado where Bryant was staying while he had arthroscopic knee surgery says he raped her when she visited his room. Whatever happened in that room, there was enough noise that another guest called down to the desk to complain about it, and the woman emerged visibly shaken, according to witnesses quoted in the press.

After sort of hinting in a brief newspaper interview that there was nothing to the claim, Bryant, who is married, admitted Friday, the day the district attorney announced he would be charged, that he had had sex with the woman, but that it was a consensual encounter.

We know that the woman's friends have told reporters variously that she is a good kid, she's had a rough time emotionally following the end of a relationship and the death of a friend, she wants to be famous and tried out for "American Idol," and that she's not the type who would falsely accuse someone of rape as some kind of scam. We know that the Orange County Register reported Sunday that two months before her encounter with Bryant, she'd been rushed to the hospital because of a drug overdose, just like thousands of other people every year who don't falsely accuse anyone of rape.

In other words, we know pretty much nothing. And that's pretty much what we know about what kind of guy Kobe Bryant is. But we know celebrities tend to get the benefit of the doubt, and we know that to a lot of us, any accusation of sexual assault is suspicious, that the woman is most likely some kind of harpy.

One thing you can know for sure is that as much as you think you know a celebrity, you don't. It's not difficult to cultivate a public image that makes you appear to be a nice, thoughtful, polite, down-to-earth person. Here's the Cliff's Notes: Be polite, friendly and upbeat with reporters and those fans whose paths you cross.

Do that and you can be a monster behind closed doors, but one with a golden reputation. You could probably fill the Staples Center with lovable, likable, adored celebrities who have ex-spouses, baby-sitters and personal assistants just itching to tell you the real story if you're willing to buy a few rounds.

That good reputation will stand you in good stead if you ever get in trouble. "With a high-profile defendant, one who doesn't have a criminal record, it seems like the jury really is able to afford the person the presumption of innocence," UC-Berkeley law professor Charles Weisselberg told me two years ago. He was talking about the Robert Blake case.

It's strange. How many celebrities we once thought well of have to act badly before we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt because they're famous?

But it goes beyond that. Bryant doesn't seem like "that type of guy"? Who knows what type of guy anybody is sexually unless they've had sex with him?

Sex is just different. People act differently when they're in sexual situations. (To those who would argue that rape is not "sexual": When you're a married man and a young woman who isn't your wife and whom you've known for less than an hour pays a social call to your hotel room, that is on some level a sexual situation, even if no sex occurs.)

I suppose some people are exactly the same when they're getting their swerve on as they are when they're doing anything else, but enough people transform in sexual situations, allow themselves behavior they wouldn't dream of in any other situation, that you simply can't say, "That's totally out of his character" about someone when you have never been a sexual partner and "that" involves sex.

I have friends who think they know me pretty well and they're right. But even they don't know what happens in my house when the lights go down, the lederhosen come out and the "Great Speeches of Richard Nixon" CD begins to play. I may have just said too much, but I think you get my point.

And yet many of us are quick to assume we know what happened in someone's hotel room. "He was Tysoned," read one e-mail from a reader, a statement that assumed knowledge not only of what happened in Bryant's hotel room three weeks ago, but what happened in Mike Tyson's a decade ago.

Like you, and like that letter writer, I have no idea what happened in that room, no clue if Bryant is guilty of a terrible crime or the victim of a false accusation. But it seems to me that if we're going to start making assumptions -- and we all do that -- the circumstances look bad for Bryant.

First, he hurt his credibility, an incredibly valuable resource in a he said-she said trial, by denying everything, or at least hinting at a denial, until he was charged, when he suddenly and tearfully admitted to "adultery." Could his embarrassing public apology to his wife be seriously considered anything other than spin? If the apology were genuinely about her, wouldn't it already have taken place, and in private?

Second, he's a 24-year-old multimillionaire basketball superstar, a subset of society that has quite a reputation for dogging women and is not used to being denied, sexually or any other way. Again, I have no idea if Bryant is being set up, but it's certainly not inconceivable that a person who's been told daily since grade school that he was special, who's been able to achieve and acquire almost anything anyone could want, is not very good at taking no for an answer.

Third, his accuser would have to be a lunatic to think that falsely accusing a wealthy, beloved sports hero of rape would somehow help her become famous in showbiz, or that it would result in a big civil-suit payday that wouldn't come at a cost of unbearable psychic scars. She'd have to be a lunatic, in fact, to think it would get her anything but a world of hurt.

What woman, even a naive 19-year-old, doesn't know that accusing someone of rape could mean being disbelieved, humiliated, attacked in court and in the media by the defense? In a 2001 Justice Department study, "The Sexual Victimization of College Women," only about 5 percent of college women who said they were raped had reported the attack to law enforcement. These are women who are roughly the age of the accuser in the Bryant case, and their attackers are uniformly less powerful than Bryant.

And what world would that 19-year-old have to live in to not know that accusing a celebrity of rape would put her in the eye of a harrowing storm, both in the media and in court?

Todd Jones, who defended Kirby Puckett against a sexual assault charge this spring, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "There are already private eyes working for Kobe digging up everything on her life, her friends. There's going to be all kinds of dirt: 'She's a drama queen, an attention-getter.' They're going to come straight at her that her allegations are for attention or money or both.'"

You don't have to be an attorney to know that. You just have to have lived in our world long enough, which a 19-year-old woman certainly has. If the charges against Bryant are bogus, Bryant's accuser, not having been raped, would be putting herself in a situation that 19 out of 20 real rape victims her age think isn't worth the trouble.

Again, not inconceivable. There really are people who are colossally naive, emotionally unstable or in need of attention and celebrity, no matter how they get it. And there are people who are willing to put up with a Shinola storm of any magnitude if there's a big enough check at the other end of it. Maybe the hotel employee is all of the above. Maybe the worst thing that happened in that hotel room was an honest misunderstanding about what constitutes the answer "no."

Like I said, I don't know and neither do you. I just don't think we should be so quick to give Bryant the benefit of the doubt.

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