King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Kobe Bryant trial: "The odds are heavily stacked against the prosecution." Jeff Benedict, author of a new book about the NBA and crime, talks about the case and the league's toxic culture.

Published July 6, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Even as Kobe Bryant's Colorado rape trial is set to begin Aug. 27, NBA teams are pursuing the superstar guard, who is a free agent. This is hardly a surprise to Jeff Benedict, whose latest book, which he says the Bryant case inspired him to research and write, is called "Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence, and Crime."

Benedict is a lawyer and investigative reporter who's written or co-written four books about athletes and sex crimes, including "Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL." In that book, Benedict and co-author Don Yaeger found that 21 percent of NFL players had been charged with a serious crime.

"Out of Bounds" has made headlines with an even more startling finding: Benedict conducted a criminal background investigation of 177 men who played during the 2001-02 season, and 71 of them -- 40 percent -- had been "arrested or otherwise recommended by police to prosecuting attorneys for indictment for a serious crime." The "lion's share" of the victims, Benedict writes, were women.

Benedict gives the details of a number of cases, including those of Ruben Patterson, then of the Seattle Sonics, forcing his child's nanny to perform oral sex on him -- he entered an Alford plea, which is an acceptance of a conviction while maintaining innocence, to a reduced charge -- and Glenn Robinson, then of the Milwaukee Bucks, beating up his ex-fiancée and demanding that she give him his gun while a 3-year-old was in the house. He was later convicted of domestic battery and assault.

The real subject of the book, Benedict writes, is not the misbehavior of any individual player, but the culture and mind-set of the NBA, one in which women are "nothing more than sexual prey" for the players, who are accustomed from the time they begin showing unusual athletic ability to getting whatever they want, in any situation.

"Set aside the question of guilt or innocence for a minute and think about this," Benedict writes. "Bryant checked into a resort hotel shortly after 10 p.m. on June 30, 2003, and a sexual incident was under way with a complete stranger by shortly after 11 p.m. How many people can relate to going to a hotel in a strange city, seeing a complete stranger upon check-in, and having sexual intercourse with that stranger within an hour?"

"Out of Bounds" is also about the difficulty police and prosecutors have in convicting the rich, famous men who play professional sports, men who have the ability to hire squads of top lawyers and other "problem solvers" whenever they do get in trouble, and whom juries are reluctant to convict.

I spoke to Benedict, who is also an activist against casino expansion who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 2002, by phone from his Connecticut home.

You say you've looked at 22 felony assault complaints filed against active NBA players in the last 10 years, and Kobe Bryant's is the first to go to trial. Can we draw any conclusions from that? The prosecutors must believe they have some good evidence, but maybe also Bryant feels so strongly that he's innocent that he's not going for any deal.

In fact both of those could be true at the same time. Another way to look at it is that he's got a lot more to lose here than anybody before him. There's an immense amount riding on this trial, not to mention the obvious, which is his freedom. Also, there's a tremendous amount of money at stake for him and for others who are associated with him.

You've looked at the briefs in this case. I wonder if you can play oddsmaker. What are the chances that Bryant's going to be convicted, and what are the odds that he's going to do time if so?

I think the odds are heavily stacked against the prosecution succeeding in this case. And that says nothing about the quality of the evidence and nothing about their skills as prosecutors. It's simply a reality that this is not an ordinary defendant, and no matter who they pick as jurors, unless these jurors have been living on Mars for the last 10 years, they're going to come into this trial with an image and a perception of Kobe that has been framed by what they have seen on television and in magazines. And there is simply no way around that.

I've been reading a lot of columns from around the country about how NBA teams are immoral or amoral for pursuing Kobe Bryant, a suspected rapist, as a free agent. What does that say to their fans, especially their female fans? It seems to me that NBA teams are a business, and if it's not a good business decision, if it pisses off the fan base, they're not going to do it. I assume these guys know their business. Therefore, aren't they just reflecting the morality of their community, which is to say, "OK, we are giving this guy the presumption of innocence"?

I think there's some truth to what you're saying. These guys are making a gain-loss decision. However, I would look at the Portland Trailblazers as a case study that maybe people ought to pay more attention to. They actually took a hit in their season-ticket base due to the criminal problems that they were having with their players in the last couple of years.

So there's some risk involved in signing [Bryant], but his talent is so high, he's such a good player and he's only 25 years old. And you know, the whisper campaign around the league is that the case is weak and he's going to get off. So there's a lot of people who are willing to take the risk.

I'm not so sure about the general public. This gets us beyond the NBA fan base, obviously, but the general public I think probably has a little bit of stomach turning when they see this courting going on of a guy who's weeks away from standing trial for one of the most serious and heinous crimes in our system.

The NBA's gone on the offensive against your book. Commissioner David Stern says you're conflating accusations with convictions, which you address in the book.

I actually think the [NBA's official] statement's a great statement in the sense that it's full of what I would call errors. I mean, the first line in there is "Criminal conduct is always a matter of serious concern." That's a great line. "Criminal conduct is always a matter of serious concern." Really?

Would you consider it "serious concern" that the NBA took a guy like Glenn Robinson, who savagely beat a woman, threatened to shoot her with a gun, there was a child in the house, and he got a three-game suspension -- after a jury found him guilty? You call that taking things seriously?

Or Ruben Patterson, who's a registered, convicted sex offender, and he gets a 10-game suspension. I think when you consider that these guys play between 82 and 100 games a year, and you look at three games for a guy who beats a woman, 10 games for a guy who's a registered sex offender, to me that's laughable.

Another charge, given that 81 percent of the players in your survey are black and 91 percent of those with an arrest history are black, is racism. I thought your response in anticipation of that charge in the book was a little glib. [From the prologue: "A similar examination of the National Hockey League, which is composed almost exclusively of white players, would surely demonstrate that most, if not all, of its players with a criminal history are white."] I don't know how you can talk about young black men and arrest rates and just dismiss racism.

Well, implicit in your question is the suggestion that there's some racism on the part of law-enforcement officials pursuing these guys. The point I was getting at in the book in bringing up racism and addressing it as quickly as I did was not to deal with that question, but to deal with the question of whether writing this book and doing this research is implicitly racist, which is what the league wants you to think.

But if racism in law enforcement exists, that's what's going to raise the rates.

Good point, but let's talk about that. This is one instance where race is actually, it's almost invisible here. Let's just assume you have some profiling going on, you have some police officers who've seen an expensive car go by and it's being driven by an African-American man, and they pull the car over. But when they get up to the window and they ask for the license and registration, they may not even get that far before they realize, "Oh, this is so-and-so on the Phoenix Suns," or this is whoever.

Right away, that's a signal, and it's a loud signal to the law-enforcement agency: Be careful. You're now questioning and taking into custody not just anybody here, but you're dealing with someone who's a celebrity, who's very well known in the community, and by virtue of potentially arresting and charging him with something, you're going to cast an enormous spotlight not only on him, but on yourself and your agency. And I think law enforcement, particularly post-O.J. Simpson, is very, very conscious of how they treat athletes when they arrest them, because their work becomes the subject of the case. It can sometimes be what determines guilt or innocence.

So I will not dismiss the prospect that some of these players may get pulled over sometimes because of their race, but I'm telling you that the minute the law-enforcement community knows who they're dealing with, there's a totally different standard that kicks in. I don't mean favoritism. But they are careful and they are very thorough in what they're doing. And they do not file false charges against these guys because they know what these guys can do. Look, if we were talking 20 years ago, I'd probably agree with your question much more strongly than I would today.

There was one point where I thought you, well, you revealed some cultural bias, as we say in the left-wing community. I thought it was sort of stepping outside of your role when you talked about the image of the players. [From the book: "There is nothing admirable or beautiful about the emerging image of today's NBA player: diamond-studded ears, flesh plastered with offensive body tattoos, and nicknames like 'The Answer' and 'Big Dog.'"]

You know, I don't find earrings and tattoos offensive, and what's offensive about "The Big Dog" as opposed to "The Big Dipper," or what's the difference between "The Answer" and "Mr. Clutch"? You're getting at individualism, but you seem to introduce your own personal tastes.

People will make their own judgments about that. The point is, I think if the NBA wants to promote a league that the face of it has become what I described. Do I like it? Not particularly. Is it an image that I think is a positive one that reflects well on so-called role models for youth? No, I don't.

How would you feel if all that was exactly the same, the tattoos and the bling-bling, and the NBA had a get-tough policy on criminality? If Ruben Patterson had to sit for a year instead of 10 games?

It wouldn't change my view at all in terms of whether I think that image is the right image. In other words, you should and could have the tougher standard on the crime, but still clean up the image. There is a segment of fans and population that love that image. It's the bad boy image. What I'm saying is the league has, I think, chosen to embrace the bad boy image, and maybe it's because it sells. But in the long run, you measure that against, Are you able to retain, over time, the fan base? And I don't know if you can. And I don't really care if they do.

But if you're looking to expose what my bias is, I think I just told you what it is. And I think there are a lot of parents, and this is purely anecdotal on my part, and I admit this in the book, but every interview I did essentially, that was the response that I got. Now, granted I'm interviewing police officers, prosecutors, families that have been victimized by these players. But even some of the agents who will go off the record and be candid with you will say, "This is a problem. It's a real problem." And some of the defense lawyers even will admit that, off the record. It's a problem.

I listen to sports talk radio sometimes, and people call in and say, "Well, I think Kobe's innocent." What do you think when you hear people saying stuff like that? "I think he's innocent. I don't think he did it. Why would he do it?"

I don't even give an opinion on that despite having spent the last year researching and writing about it, because I know that the courtroom is a wonderful venue for eliciting truth, and we're all going to see some things in this trial when people are sworn to testify under oath, we're going to learn some things that we don't know about this case. It can cause you to eat crow if you've been out there spouting off about guilt or innocence before the verdict is in.

By Salon Staff

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