Kobe Bryant's Image Forever Tarnished?

Kobe Bryant's "Mr. Clean" image may be permanently stained.

Colorado prosecutors are weighing whether to file charges against Bryant in the case of a 19-year-old college student who accused him of sexual assault. The Los Angeles Lakers guard was in Edwards, Colo., for knee surgery from June 30 to July 2 and stayed at the lodge where the woman worked.

Few details have been revealed, but authorities say the alleged attack occurred in the lodge on June 30. Bryant, 24, voluntarily surrendered to authorities July 4 and posted $25,000 bail. Bryant has denied the accusation.

Shocked teammates, friends, relatives and legions of fans could not believe that the married father of a 6-month-old girl could have been involved in such an attack. Bryant, who has cultivated a wholesome image in ads for McDonald's and Sprite and recently signed a reported five-year, $40 million-$50 million deal with Nike, has been described as a respected loner who mostly avoided the party scene and was dedicated solely to honing his craft.

But is that wholesome image just a facade? It just took one accusation to cast a question mark over Bryant's reputation. Some say the NBA superstar will have a hard time outrunning the cloud of suspicion, even if he is exonerated.

"There are a number of different audiences Kobe has to worry about: his family, his fans, his team, his league and his sponsors," said Mike Paul, who runs MGP & Associates, a New York public relations firm specializing in reputation management.

"There are potential [sponsorship] deals that Kobe doesn't even know about that may be closed to him now because of this," said Paul. "Not to mention, you also have to consider that clauses in his current deals must call to negate the contract if he winds up in jail."

Advertisers are very sensitive about the public perception of an endorser.

"When people see Kobe drinking a Sprite in a commercial, advertisers don't want them to think, 'Hey, there's Kobe Bryant, and isn't he suspected of raping someone?' " Paul said. "That's not the kind of association — distraction — advertisers want. Madison Avenue doesn't like it."

Cleanliness Is Not Godliness

Last year, Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc., a sports marketing and endorsement firm, conducted a poll that listed Bryant as the third most sought-after product endorser in sports, behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Bryant, Burns Sports & Celebrities estimates, earns $10 million to $12 million a year in endorsements deals alone.

Still, Bryant's clean image is both an asset and a curse in the controversy he faces. The accusation against him has generated headlines because he is Kobe Bryant, model citizen/NBA superstar.

"In general, in the short term, controversy tends to hurt an athlete with a clean image more than a controversial athlete like Allen Iverson," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities. "When your image is clean, the controversy is more interesting. You guys in the media want to cover it more."

At worst, Williams said, if the controversy continues to escalate and Bryant is charged and convicted of the alleged sexual assault, he could lose between $100 million and $150 million in potential endorsement earnings. But Bryant's good reputation and the ability — up until recently — to stay away from controversy have also made it easier for Bryant's fans to give him the benefit of the doubt in this incident.

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