Bryant's presumed innocence doesn't overshadow our guilt

WHY ARE NEWSPAPER covers and back pages filled with pictures of Kobe Bryant, biting his lips in anguish and resolve? Why is this "big news" on 24-hour news stations, when Iraq is in turmoil and the economy is in the tank?

Without diminishing the prosecutor's case, without belittling the alleged victim, whose accusations provide the foundation for a felony charge, it's this big because we've all been caught. Everyone's on trial. All of us.

Kobe Bryant is. The 24-year-old NBA star has been charged with sexual assault, and the penalty in Eagle County, Colo., actually reads four years to life. No amount of public relations gamesmanship or L.A. "Showtime" is going to diminish the severity of this charge or the penalty. Better believe Bryant is crying. His betrayed young wife might be the least of his problems, and that's saying something, considering his own admission of adultery.

The NBA is on trial, because Bryant, though a far more selfish, frustrating player than Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been able to cope with, is no Damon Stoudamire (a habitual possessor of marijuana). He's no Chris Webber (who slithered through the truth long before he admitted lying to a grand jury). He's the anti-Allen Iverson (the street kid who can't quite stay away from scenarios involving lawyers, guns and assault charges).

NBA commissioner David Stern issued a statement saying the league's policy is to wait for the outcome of any legal proceeding before taking any action, but the damage is done. If Bryant is in this kind of trouble, if his offseason downtime is spent doing things like this, what hope is there for the Shawn Kemp/Latrell Sprewell NBA to regain hold of a wider audience?

Madison Avenue is on trial, but that's not a bad thing. We've all read about that from marketing and advertising gurus. The selling of Kobe Bryant has been so widespread, and more saturated in fat than a McDonald's french fry, millions ride on his (formerly) pristine image. Now the corporate kingpins fret about when to cut ties and run.

That means consumers are on trial. We obeyed Kobe's thirst to sell us sneakers, soft drinks and fast food. Now, how will we feel seeing and hearing him on the small screen, smiling and hawking products?

As long as these charges are pending and maybe even afterward, Kobe the pitchman may make us feel like we're being sold down the river on a yacht-load of false advertising.

Young fans who once named Kobe Bryant one of their top three role models in the world? They're on trial, too. Bryant's formerly Teflon image as an All-Star, as the Air Apparent to Michael Jordan's kingdom, was based on his being the fresh prince of basketball, the savior.

Kobe is supposed to be different not just in skill, but also in athletic temperament and drive. He has been the rare champion whose greatest desire was to be the best, to win, not to cheat on his wife, not to take such unnecessary, undisciplined risk.

Add all that up and you get sports on trial, too - again. The good feelings we get watching sports are dragged into the muck as one of the biggest symbols of a wholesome champion is soiled.

Now, the media, the fans, the cynics can lump Bryant in with everything else that's wrong with the games we watch. He's like college football, where university presidents will sell out to the highest bidder to feed a corrupt system. He makes us think about baseball, with its flimsy steroids/substance abuse policy that winks when players get big and smack homers, but sidesteps the truth of such an environment when a 23-year-old pitcher dies, taking a drug-induced shortcut.

Finally, after all this, there is the victim. That would be the 19-year-old woman who went to Bryant's room on whatever premise and came out with accusations and evidence strong enough to warrant a felony charge.

More so than anything else that has been shaken and stirred since this case broke July 6, the victim is on trial, because the victim in sexual assault cases always goes on trial. And as much as the cameras show Bryant suffering, what don't we see about her state of mind, her story?

Listen for one minute to legal advocates like Kathy Redmond, the former Nebraska student assaulted by Cornhuskers football player Christian Peter. Redmond's life work now is to help others, because she learned the shocking reality that when a sexual assault victim files charges and seeks justice, the victim is assumed guilty.

This is the mind-set regarding victims: Why was she (or he) in that situation to begin with? Wasn't the mere fact of his or her presence proof of complicit behavior?

"I didn't do anything she didn't want," is the message Bryant adamantly delivered in that quick-draw media session he set up Friday night soon after he was charged.

Maybe he didn't do anything to her she didn't want. Maybe he thought he could just dial up some sexual room service and everything that went down was consensual. Maybe she was cool with everything until she realized there was a big bank account attached to a millionaire athlete like Bryant.

But we've heard all that before. She wanted it. She said yes. As former victims attest, the victim must disprove as much about her role as the prosecutor must prove about the perpetrator's actions.

That's especially true when the accused is one of the biggest, "cleanest" sports stars in our galaxy. That's especially true of a player who has benefited from star-making machinery that says he's too good to be true.

Everyone has to take the stand on this one. Innocent or guilty, Kobe Bryant was too good to be true.

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