"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.