KOBE BRYANT is the biggest-name professional athlete to have his name land on a police blotter in the past few weeks. But he's hardly the only one. Ten other pro football and basketball players also are squirming on the legal hot seat. They are some of the biggest names in their sport.
They are paid a king's ransom in salary and make millions more in endorsements, promotional and business deals.
Mr. Bryant and several of the wayward athletes haven't as yet been convicted of any criminal misconduct, and there is no evidence that athletes are more prone to violence and sexual thuggishness than men in general.
But from the day they put on shorts or cleats, super-talented athletes such as Mr. Bryant become the instant repository of the dreams, delusions and fantasies of a public desperately in need of vicarious escape. They are swooned and fawned over by a star-struck media and public.
When they commit or are accused of criminal acts, the public reacts with shock and disbelief, yet it is still willing to cut them more slack than they would give a non-celebrity. In an ESPN survey taken immediately after charges were filed against Mr. Bryant, more than half the respondents said they believe that he is innocent.
In Mr. Bryant's case, barely one-third of those polled said that the charges "somewhat" tarnished their image of him. Mr. Bryant posted a paltry bail of $25,000 and avoided jail.
Mr. Bryant, and the other accused ballplayers, will have the best legal defense money can buy. They will be cheered when they hit the field or the court even as their cases wind through the courts. If convicted, which is far less likely than if they were regular Joes charged with the same offense, they will likely get probation.
They'll be dogged by the taint of the scandal, and they'll lose their endorsement deals, but not their careers. Mr. Bryant's trial, for instance, almost certainly will be delayed until after basketball season.
Mike Tyson is living testament to the kid-glove idolatry of bad-boy athletes. He told one interviewer after yet another run-in with the law, "They pay $500 to see me. There's so much hypocrisy in the world."
But Mr. Tyson, pumped up by sports fans, admirers, the media and boxing's money crowd as his sport's primal-force gladiator, took full advantage of that hypocrisy. He believed he was "Iron Mike," a man above the law who could do anything and get away with it. Despite a mile-long rap sheet, three years in prison, a certified monster image and the fact that he was a badly burned-out shell of a boxer, his stock soared even higher when he was released from the pen. Many of those who shouted the loudest for his head were the ones clamoring the loudest for tickets to see him hammer someone in the ring.
Then there's the question of race.
When a Mike Tyson, an O. J. Simpson or now a Kobe Bryant is charged with a crime, many blacks swiftly circle the wagon and shout loudly "racist double-standard." This means that they think that even though the athletes are rich, famous and shamelessly pampered, they are still black and are more harshly treated for their misdeeds than white athletes and celebrities. If their alleged victims are white, as Mr. Bryant's is rumored to be and Mr. Simpson's was, they will incur the wrath of the nation and become instant poster boys for deviant behavior.
Certainly, in decades past, legions of black men were lynched and brutalized often on the unsubstantiated word of a white woman. Even today, prison studies repeatedly show that blacks receive much harsher sentences when their victims are white.
Much was made of race during the Simpson trial. Already, there are grumbles from some blacks that Mr. Bryant is in hot water not because he may have sexually victimized a young woman but because they believe the young woman is white and he is the target of a vindictive, politically motivated white district attorney in a small conservative town.
But what if the charges against Mr. Bryant and the other black athletes turn out to be true? Then once again it can, will and should be said that many blacks are quick on the draw to play the race card to excuse or justify bad or even criminal behavior.
Mr. Bryant may not be anyone's model for the thug athlete. But his case dumps the ugly issues of wealth, celebrity hype, fan idolatry, sexual violence and, yes, race squarely back on the nation's table.
Those issues played terribly in the Simpson case. Let's see if they fare any better in Mr. Bryant's.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press, 1998). He lives in Inglewood, Calif.