"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."