Sexual Charge Clouds Kobe Bryant’s Future

LOS ANGELES – Felony sexual assault charge against the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and his admission that he “made the mistake of adultery” threaten his image, NBA career and his sponsorship deals — worth at least $20 million a year.

The 24-year-old superstar guard faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted.

Bryant denied the charge, saying he was guilty only of committing adultery with a 19-year-old woman who worked the front desk at the exclusive spa in Eagle, Colo., where Bryant stayed while undergoing knee surgery.

Bryant’s face is everywhere from eye-popping dunks to sipping a Sprite or heading to McDonald’s with a gaggle of youngsters. It’s been that way almost from the day he joined the Los Angeles Lakers seven years ago, fresh out of a suburban Philadelphia high school.

“Everybody thought he was squeaky clean. Now, everybody knows he’s not,” said Peter Louis, a 39-year-old Los Angeles attorney and lifetime Lakers fan.

Bryant’s million-dollar smile and charisma rival those of Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

Because of that image — bright, handsome, successful, wealthy — Bryant has been one of America’s most recognizable citizens and a prominent pitchman for several major companies.

He signed a five-year, $45 million contract with Nike just days before the sexual assault allegations surfaced earlier this month.

Within hours after Bryant was charged Friday, the shoe company issued a statement of support, saying it was “pleased to have a relationship” with the five-time NBA All-Star, who helped the Lakers win three straight titles.

But not everyone is so sure that kind of support will last.

“In the short term, this is going to kill his endorsements,” said Michael Sands, consultant for Sands Media in Los Angeles.

David Carter, a principal for the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, called the case “the sports marketing equivalent of SARS (news – web sites).”

“If he’s found guilty, he’s got bigger problems than sports marketing,” Carter said. “If it turns out to be that it was consensual sex, merely adultery, I think he will get through this OK.”

Sands agreed.

“If he takes the witness stand in Colorado, gives an accurate account of each and every event during the sexual encounter, which will turn out to be an American soap opera, he’ll be OK,” he said. “The bridges can be repaired.”

Sands also noted that, in a perverse way, a tarnished image can be a plus.

“Kobe is a national institution at this point,” he said. “Now, he has a bad-boy image, which America likes.”

America likes? Well, fans are wild about Allen Iverson, who certainly holds one of the top bad-boy image spots. The Oakland Raiders even fit into that classification as a team.

“Nike would be foolish to drop Kobe — he’s a bigger household name now than he’s ever been in an economy that’s terrible,” Sands said. “Nike’s really hurting for business. They’re getting millions of dollars worth of free advertising because of this fluke.

“They’re there to sell merchandise, not to decide whether he’s innocent or guilty.”

Still, Bryant could lose up to $150 million in potential earnings, estimates Bob Williams of Burns Sports and Celebrities Inc. Last fall, Williams’ firm commissioned a poll that listed Bryant as the third-best product endorser in sports, behind Woods and Jordan.

Bryant was married in 2001 and became a father in January. He wore his hospital ID bracelet in honor of his baby girl in his first game after she was born, and he later appeared in ESPN ads carrying a case of diapers.

Now, that wholesome image is in jeopardy. His playing career is in trouble, too.

Facing a trial his attorneys say could last four to six months, his upcoming season with the Lakers could be disrupted or ended, even if he’s eventually acquitted. The Lakers start training camp in early October in Hawaii and begin the season a month later.

Bryant is scheduled to return to Eagle for a hearing on Aug. 6. His lawyer, Pamela Mackey, said he will plead innocent.

The Lakers became the favorites to win the NBA championship next season after signing Gary Payton and Karl Malone. If Bryant is convicted, the Lakers could lose one of the league’s best players in the prime of his career.

Bryant is also a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team but didn’t figure to play in next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico after undergoing surgery on his shoulder and knee.

No matter how things end, Bryant’s career and image will most likely be tarnished forever.

“Morally, we’re disappointed,” said Louis, the longtime Lakers’ fan. “He’s human, though, and I think that people will forgive him eventually. But it’s going to change him, certainly.”