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History says Kobe's image will survive
by: Jamey Codding (e-mail
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So Kobe Bryant's immaculate image is forever tarnished, huh? Are you one of those who claim the viewing and, even more importantly, the buying public will never again open their hearts and wallets for the Lakers superstar as wholly as they once did? Do you believe Bryant's legal and marital problems will cast an ominous shadow over his hardwood accomplishments throughout the remainder of his playing career?

Man, you haven't been paying attention.

Foretelling the demise of Kobe's love affair with NBA consumers has become chic in the wake of the sexual assault charges filed against the 24-year-old guard two weeks ago and his ensuing admission of infidelity. Condemning Bryant for his immoral actions in a Colorado spa validates our own morality, and maintaining that we'll "never watch another Lakers game" proves that we won't tolerate such depravity from our cultural icons.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Hey, we're making a statement, taking a stand. We don't care what the name stitched on the back of the jersey is or how many products your familiar face endorses -- we'll cut you loose at the first sign of moral corruption. You may get three strikes on the baseball field but here in the court of public opinion, we're not nearly as charitable.

If only all of that were true.

Admittedly, since his arrest Bryant's rep has taken it on the chin and it'll only get worse once the season starts. But, as we've demonstrated all too often in the past, these statements we make and stands we take as fans will likely falter once the headlines fade from the front page. One day, we're the judge, jury and executioner; the next, we're the governor ready to grant a full pardon.

Sure, we'd love it if our favorite athletes doubled as sparkling, "Leave It To Beaver" role models for our kids but when game day rolls around, all we truly care about is the scoreboard and the stat line. We've already concluded that RBIs are more meaningful to us than DUIs. Smoke all the pot you want as long as you're pouring in 20 points a night. Who cares about that weapons charge? Dude just ripped off a 40-yard touchdown run.

Remember when New Jersey Nets superstar Jason Kidd smacked around his wife Joumana a couple years ago? The All-Star point guard, then a member of the Suns, reportedly punched Joumana in the face and then spit french fries at her, all while the couple's two-year-old son T.J. watched.

Man, were we pissed, and rightfully so. Kidd was heckled in nearly every arena he played in that season and in Boston, chants of "wife beater" still relentlessly rain down from the stands. In fact, the Beantown crowd gets so rowdy when Kidd's Nets are in town that Joumana doesn't even show up for road games against the Celtics these days, a rarity for a woman who's almost always on display in the front row as her husband's personal cheerleader.

But while the initial fan reaction to Kidd's domestic violence charge was predictably and understandably negative, it seems as though most people outside of Boston have since pushed those sentiments aside to make room for the mountain of electrifying highlight-reel plays the flashy point guard generates. We cheer the alley-oops to teammates Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin. We simply shake our heads in disbelief when he slings a stunning no-look pass between two or three defenders for an easy bucket. We watch in sheer amazement as he executes yet another fast break to perfection.

I know what you're saying: You can admire a man's talent without admiring that man's character. That's absolutely true -- Jason Kidd's skill on the court and the values he upholds off it are two separate issues, and just because you happen to appreciate what he can do with a basketball doesn't mean you condone what he's done with his personal life. But perhaps the ultimate indication of fan worship is seeing some kid wearing a jersey with your name and number plastered on the back, and because Kidd's was the sixth most popular NBA jersey in terms of sales for the 2002-03 season, it's safe to assume that there are in fact plenty of fans who place more value on his talent than his character, plenty of fans who haven't let Kidd's legal issues affect his marketability.

Kidd punched his wife in the face in front of their infant son and fans across the country were outraged, calling sports talk shows and writing letters to newspapers and magazines wondering what happened to the athletes we used to respect for their moral makeup as much as their physical prowess. Two years later, many of those same outraged fans are buying Jason Kidd jerseys for their children.

Sports history is positively littered with individuals whose iniquitous off-field troubles have been forgiven by adoring fans who marvel at their tremendous on-field heroics. Sitting at #2 on that list of most popular NBA jerseys is Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers guard who's had his own publicized legal problems. As a teenager in 1993, he was arrested for fighting in a Virginia bowling alley and spent four months in prison before the conviction was overturned in 1995; he pleaded no contest to a gun charge in 1997 after police pulled over a car and found a gun belonging to Iverson, who was a passenger in the vehicle, as well as two marijuana cigarettes; in 1998, two of Iverson's friends borrowed his car and were pulled over on drug charges -- Iverson, however, was not charged; and last July, the 28-year-old Iverson was charged with four felony counts and related offenses for allegedly forcing his way into his cousin's apartment with a gun and threatening two men while searching for his wife. The charges were later dropped.

And yet, despite these disturbing events (or, if you believe what some people say about the value of "street cred," because of these disturbing events), Iverson remains one of the NBA's most marketable and popular products. He's got a lifetime endorsement deal with Reebok, he's a four-time All Star and his jersey's one of the league's hottest sellers.

Which is why I have to laugh when I hear people say that fans will never again trust Kobe Bryant, that he's going to lose millions of endorsement dollars and that his image will never recover. Why not? Fans trust Jason Kidd. Reebok hasn't given Allen Iverson the boot. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis remains one of the NFL's most popular players despite his arrest on murder charges and subsequent obstruction-of-justice conviction three years ago. Former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura wasn't welcomed back with open arms when he was acquitted of his own sexual assault charges in 2001, but it's no secret: the greater the player, the greater the leniency. And the public didn't care enough about Chmura to overlook his transgression.

Granted, if Bryant is found guilty of the crimes he's charged with we won't be talking about his marketability and his rep -- we'll be talking about how he'll be spending the next four years to life. But come on, with the bank account Kobe's got behind him, not to mention the connections he has, what do you think the chances are of him actually being convicted? At best, he's not guilty and the trial will prove his innocence; at worst, he'll throw piles of cash at his accuser just to settle the case and avoid prison time and further embarrassment. When that happens, how long will it take NBA fans to reposition Bryant at the pinnacle of superstardom? Especially since, in a "he said, she said" case like this, we'll never know for certain whose side of the story the truth lies with.

I realize there's still the issue of Kobe's admitted "mistake of adultery," and I hate to sound callous, but so what? A professional athlete cheated on his wife? Hey, imagine that. Again, if you think sports fans will hold a grudge against Bryant because he was unfaithful to his bride, you haven't been paying attention.

It's now public knowledge that two of the most celebrated players in NBA history were unfaithful to their wives. We found out about Magic Johnson's cheating when he told the world more than a decade ago that he had HIV; we found out about Michael Jordan's cheating earlier this year when MJ's former mistress, Karla Knafel, sued him for not paying her the hush money he promised while he sued her for extortion. And yet, to this day Magic still is beloved by fans worldwide while the outpouring of affection for Jordan during his "farewell tour" last season was overwhelming.

So let's not be naļve here -- assuming Bryant avoids conviction, his arrest likely won't have much longstanding effect on his image or his marketability. Jason Kidd was cleared in the eyes of most sports fans. So were Allen Iverson, Ray Lewis, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. What makes you think Kobe Bryant's situation will be any different? His #8 stood atop that list of most popular NBA jerseys and while it may slip a little in the coming months, history says it will remain a top seller.

It's unfortunate, but while we ache for our sports heroes to abide by the morals and values that many of us try to follow in our own day-to-day lives, we're neither surprised nor disappointed all that much when we learn that another athlete has fallen well short of our expectations. Which means when a star like Kobe Bryant or Jason Kidd screws up, it usually just takes a little time and a few more spectacular plays for us to forget and, in some cases, even forgive their mistakes.

The sad truth is, we'll never know exactly what happened at that Colorado spa on June 30th between Bryant and his accuser. Even worse, in a year or two most of us probably won't even care.

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Other Columns By Jamey Codding

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