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.
"In his particular case, he's built such a solid reputation that people are shocked by the allegations and don't really believe he could have done it," said Craig Tartasky, chairman of the International Sport Summit, a sports-executive organization. "Right now, I don't see any long-term damage to his image."
And though Bryant is not in police custody and may not ever be charged, two fans have launched a "Free Kobe" Web site that offers T-shirts, coffee mugs and hats that say, among others things, "Free Kobe.com … Because we're running out of heroes."
Accused and Accuser Under Scrutiny
Such a loyal fan base could also spawn a backlash against the alleged victim in the case. Friends and acquaintances of the Colorado woman have said she has no reason to lie. But in sexual assault cases — especially those involving celebrities, and athletes in particular — questions are always raised about the accuser as well as the accused.
"Whenever you have cases like this, there's going to be questions raised about the victim," Tartasky said. "'What was she doing up there? Why was she up there in the room to begin with?' "
And even if people believe Bryant had a consensual sexual encounter with the woman, he will no longer be perceived as an NBA star who married his high school sweetheart and is above the temptations facing professional athletes.
"If that girl had been just two years younger, then that would have been even more trouble for Kobe," Paul said. "A court of law could still prove Kobe innocent, but there is a difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion. All of this begs for trouble in the court of public opinion. At best, he committed adultery. At worst, he was involved in a rape."
Public sports figures like Bryant, Paul said, have to be wary because they are potential targets for groupies and gold diggers.
"When I talk to basketball players, I tell them that the minute that get that big contract, their privacy is over," Paul said. "To get paid the way they do, they give up their privacy."
Bad-Boy Privileges — and Disadvantages
But Madison Avenue does like bad boys.
With his dominant play, tattoos, corn rows, and a rap album that was shelved because of its controversial lyrics, Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson seems to feed off notoriety. He had a bad-boy reputation before he played his first game in the NBA, spending four months in prison in 1993-94 for a fight in a bowling alley. He pleaded no contest to an illegal gun possession charge in 1997. None of this prevented him getting an endorsement deal with Reebok and becoming one of the most recognized players in the NBA.
"There have been guys who broke the rules," Williams said. "Dennis Rodman was as controversial as anyone at one time, and he was pulling in $9-10 million in endorsement deals.
"It has to be the right kind of controversy. Other kinds of controversy, advertisers are not going to allow themselves to go near you."
However, there's a price for being a bad boy. Last year, Philadelphia police charged Iverson with criminal trespass, simple assault, terrorist threats and gun offenses for allegedly barging into an apartment while looking for his wife. Early reports immediately focused on Iverson's criminal past; some called his story a "tragedy."
The charges against Iverson were later dropped due to lack of evidence and witnesses willing to testify. But he had already been judged.
"I suppose it [having a bad-boy image before the sex allegations] would have helped him [Bryant] if you wanted to sell a kind of counterculture kind of hero or if you wanted to appeal to a more urban audience," said Tartasky. "The thing about people with bad-boy images is that they're always prejudged. They're always convicted before there's a trial."
Forgiveness Has Limits
Fans and advertisers only have so much patience for controversial or fallen sports stars, and some transgressions, Williams said, can be unforgivable: rape, murder, alcoholism, repeated drug abuse or spousal abuse.
When Mike Tyson became boxing's youngest heavyweight champion, he was the toast of the sports world. But then followed his disastrous marriage to actress Robin Givens; a rape conviction; the ear-biting incident in his match against Evander Holyfield; several odd, violent outbursts; and losses to Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Tyson is still considered boxing's greatest pay-per-view attraction, but arguably not because of his athleticism.
When Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden first emerged as two of the New York Mets' brightest young stars in the 1980s, their potential seemed limitless. Their faces graced various sports ads and the magazine covers everywhere. But both battled substance abuse and saw their baseball careers interrupted by drug-related suspensions.
When Strawberry and Gooden made individual comebacks with the New York Yankees, fans cheered. But they also were painfully aware that the two were only shells of the players they had been and would never live up to the Hall-of-Fame potential baseball experts once predicted. Instead of Nike, Gooden and Strawberry would only become occasional spokesmen for alcohol- and drug-awareness programs and seminars.
And though O.J. Simpson — NFL Hall of Famer and Hertz's most famous pitchman of all time — was acquitted of murder chargers in the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend, fans and advertisers have never really forgiven him.
Simpson has not been able to shake the perception that he killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and got away with it. Some people cheered his not guilty verdict — but that doesn't mean they were cheering for him.
"With O.J. Simpson, I don't think people really forgave him for the actual act, but it was more like they were condemning what the police did when they were violating his rights," said Tartasky. "I'm not sure the verdict was more for O.J. or rather against the LAPD and the tactics they used to try to get a conviction."
Time Will Tell
There is still hope for Kobe Bryant. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis appeared finished as a potential commodity when he and two friends were charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men following the Super Bowl in 2000.
Ultimately, the most serious charges against Lewis were dropped and he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and interfering with an investigation. Since then, he has revamped his image and talked openly about his ordeal. He has endorsement deals with Reebok and EA Sports.
"The public — sports fans in particular — can be pretty forgiving, under the right circumstances, as long as the athlete seems contrite," Williams said. "If I was advising Kobe, I would encourage him to give his side of the story when it is appropriate for him to give his side. The woman will have something to say, I'm sure. I would encourage him to be really honest about the situation, give information and not mislead the situation.
"Right now it's too early to tell what, if any, long-term affects this will have on him," Williams said. "He's 24 years old and could play until he's 40."